October 21, 1914: Treasury Drinking Water Standards

Dr. Rupert Blue, 4th Surgeon General of the U.S.

Dr. Rupert Blue, 4th Surgeon General of the U.S.

October 21, 1914:  The first numerical drinking water regulations in the U.S. were adopted. “On October 21, 1914, pursuant to the recommendation of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service [Dr. Rupert Blue], the Treasury Department adopted the first standards for drinking water supplied to the public by any common carrier engaged in interstate commerce. These standards specified the maximum permissible limits of bacteriological impurity, which may be summarized as follows:

  1. The bacterial plate count on standard agar incubated for 24 [hours] at 37 [degrees] C was not to exceed 100/cc.
  2. Not more than one of the five 10-cc portions of each sample examined was to show presence of B. coli. [equivalent to no more than 2 /100 mL—MPN index for total coliforms]
  3. The recommended procedures were those in Standard Methods of Water Analysis (APHA, 1912) [2nd edition].

These standards were drafted by a commission of 15 appointed members. Among the members of this commission were Charles Gilman Hyde, Milton J. Rosenau, William T. Sedgwick, George C. Whipple and C.-E. A. Winslow, names well known to those who have studied early developments in water treatment.

Though not a part of the standards, the accompanying first progress report is very interesting as it provides insight into the commission’s deliberations on other problems. There appears to have been considerable discussion on whether the standards should also state that the water shall ‘be free from injurious effects upon the human body and free from offensiveness to the sense of sight, taste, or smell’; whether the quality of water required should be obtainable by the common carriers without prohibitive expense; and whether it would be necessary to require more than a ‘few and simple examinations to determine the quality of drinking water.’”

Reference:  AWWA. Water Quality and Treatment. 3rd ed. New York:McGraw Hill, 1971, p. 16-7.

Commentary: Sedgwick, Whipple and Winslow were professors at MIT, Harvard and Yale, respectively. They were also expert witnesses who played prominent roles in the lawsuit between Jersey City and the Jersey City Water Supply Company in 1906-1909. During the second Jersey City trial, they adamantly opposed the use of chlorine by Dr. John L. Leal. The story of the trials and the first continuous use of chlorine to disinfect a U.S. water supply are detailed in The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, which was published in the spring of 2013.

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