Tag Archives: chlorine

#TDIWH—January 15, 2009: PFOA Provisional Health Advisory; 1917: Death of William J. Magie

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)

January 15, 2009:  On January 15, 2009, the USEPA set a provisional health advisory level for PFOA of 0.4 parts per billion in drinking water. “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8 and perfluorooctanoate, is a synthetic, stable perfluorinated carboxylic acid and fluorosurfactant. One industrial application is as a surfactant in the emulsion polymerization of fluoropolymers. It has been used in the manufacture of such prominent consumer goods as Teflon and Gore-Tex. PFOA has been manufactured since the 1940s in industrial quantities. It is also formed by the degradation of precursors such as some fluorotelomers.

PFOA persists indefinitely in the environment. It is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. PFOA has been detected in the blood of more than 98% of the general US population in the low and sub-parts per billion range, and levels are higher in chemical plant employees and surrounding subpopulations. Exposure has been associated with increased cholesterol and uric acid levels, and recently higher serum levels of PFOA were found to be associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease in the general United States population, consistent with earlier animal studies. ‘This association was independent of confounders such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, body mass index, diabetes, hypertension, and serum cholesterol level.’”

Boonton Reservoir Hypochlorination Station

January 15, 1917:  Death of William J. Magie. In 1899, Jersey City, New Jersey contracted for the construction of a new water supply on the Rockaway River, which was 23 miles west of the City. The water supply included a dam, reservoir and 23-mile pipeline and was completed on May 4, 1904. As was common during this time period, no treatment (except for detention and sedimentation fostered by Boonton Reservoir) was provided to the water supply. City officials were not pleased with the project as delivered by the private water company and filed a lawsuit in the Chancery Court of New Jersey. Among the many complaints by Jersey City officials was the contention that the water served to the City was not “pure and wholesome” as required by the contract. William J. Magie was selected by Vice Chancellor Frederic W. Stevens to hear the second part of the case in which the use of chlorine for disinfection was a contentious issue.  One might assume that someone relatively junior might be appointed as the Special Master to hear the highly technical and excruciatingly long arguments from both sides of the case.  Not so.  William Jay Magie was one of the most revered judges of this time period.  He took the role of Special Master in 1908 after completing 8 years as Chancellor of the Court of Chancery.  Prior to that, he was a member of the New Jersey Senate (1876-1878), Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court (1880-1897) and Chief Justice of the same court from 1897 to 1900. (Marquis 1913)

“As a trial judge his cases were handled with notable success, as he had ample experience in trying causes before juries and a just appreciation of the worth of human testimony…” (Keasbey 1912) Judge Magie would need all of his powers of appreciation of human testimony in the second trial, which boiled down to which of the expert witnesses could be believed when both sides marshaled some of the most eminent doctors, scientists and engineers in the land.

Judge Magie was born on December 9, 1832 in Elizabeth, New Jersey and lived his life in that town.  He graduated from Princeton College in 1852 and studied law under an attorney in Elizabeth.  He was admitted to the bar of New Jersey in 1856.  At the time of the second trial in 1909 he was 77 years old and near the end of his distinguished career.

On May 9, 1910, William J. Magie submitted his Special Master Report. One of Magie’s findings was of critical importance to the defendants because he laid to rest the concern that chlorine was a poison that would harm members of the public who consumed the water.

“Upon the proofs before me, I also find that the solution described leaves no deleterious substance in the water. It does produce a slight increase of hardness, but the increase is so slight as in my judgment to be negligible.” (Magie, In Chancery of New Jersey, 1910)

The Special Master Report then delivered the finding that defendants had been waiting for:

“I do therefore find and report that this device is capable of rendering the water delivered to Jersey City, pure and wholesome, for the purposes for which it is intended, and is effective in removing from the water those dangerous germs which were deemed by the decree to possibly exist therein at certain times.” (emphasis added) (Magie, In Chancery of New Jersey, 1910)

Magie’s finding summarized in this one sentence approved the use of chlorine for drinking water. After this ruling, the use of chlorine for drinking water disinfection exploded across the U.S. (McGuire 2013)

In a filing after Magie’s final decree, compensation for Judge Magie was noted as $18,000 for the entire second trial with its 38 days of testimony over 14 months, dozens of briefs and hundreds of exhibits.  It must have been the hardest $18,000 he ever earned.


  • Keasbey, E.Q. (1912). The Courts and Lawyers of New Jersey, 1661-1912. Vol. 3, New York:Lewis Historical Publishing Co.
  • Magie, William J. (1910). In Chancery of New Jersey: Between the Mayor and Aldermen of Jersey City, Complainant, and the Jersey City Water Supply Co., Defendant. Report for Hon. W.J. Magie, special master on cost of sewers, etc., and on efficiency of sterilization plant at Boonton, Press Chronicle Co., Jersey City, New Jersey, (Case Number 27/475-Z-45-314), 1-15.
  • Marquis, Albert N. (1913). Who’s Who in America. 7, Chicago:A.N. Marquis.
  • McGuire, Michael J. (2013). The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

January 1, 2002: D/DBP Stage 1 Rule Compliance Deadline; 1980: International Decade of Water Begins

January 1, 2002:  Deadline for compliance with the Stage 1 Disinfectant/Disinfection By-Products Regulation for surface water systems serving >10,000 population. “The Stage 1 DBP Rule updates and supersedes the 1979 TTHM standard by lowering the MCL for TTHMs [to 80 ppb] and establishing maximum residual disinfection level (MRDL) limits for chlorine, chloramines, and chlorine dioxide and new MCLs for chlorite, bromate, and haloacetic acids (HAA5) for all community water systems and nontransient noncommunity water systems that add a chemical disinfectant for either primary or residual treatment. In addition, the Stage 1 DBP Rule requires conventional filtration systems to remove specified percentages of organic materials measured as total organic carbon (TOC) that may react with disinfectants to form DBPs.

Reference:  USEPA. (2001). “The Stage 1 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule:  What Does it Mean to You?” EPA 816-R-01-014. June 2001.

January 1, 1980:  International Decade of Water and Sanitation Begins. “The UN conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT) held in June 1976 at Vancouver, Canada, concluded that nearly two-thirds of the population of the developing world lacked access to safe drinking water and that a larger proportion lacked the means for hygienic human waste disposal. The conference urged governments to give priority to these two areas in their development process. In March 1977, the UN Water Conference, held at Mar del Plata, Argentina, called for establishing the 1980’s as the Decade for Drinking Water and Sanitation. The goal would be to bring clean water and sanitation to all peoples in the world by 1990. Since March 1979, four separate UN bodies have passed resolutions supporting the Decade and calling on all governments to support the Decade’s goals. The U.S. Government, other OECD member states, and the private sector must combine to make this Decade a success.”

December 22, 1877: Nascent Oxygen; 1998: Pollution Runs Through It

Oxidation Reduction Reactions

December 22, 1877: Publication date for “The Nascent State as Affecting Chemical Action.” (Davies 1877) Before we understood that oxidation-reduction reactions involved electron transfers, chemists theorized that oxygen existed in a “nascent state.” This state made it possible for oxidation reactions to take place. Such an outmoded chemistry concept is relevant to a discussion of the history of chlorination in the U.S.

The first continuous use of chlorine to disinfect a U.S. water supply occurred at Boonton Reservoir—the water supply for Jersey City, New Jersey. As recounted in a forthcoming book (The Chlorine Revolution), two trials defined the need for disinfection and documented how it happened. In the second Jersey City trial, Dr. John L. Leal claimed that chlorine was not responsible for killing bacteria. Instead, he put forth the long-standing theory that chlorine when added to water liberated something called nascent oxygen, and it was the nascent oxygen was responsible for disinfection. (McGuire 2013)

The concept of nascent oxygen originated with James Watt, who described the importance of liberated oxygen in the bleaching process. An equation suggested by Watt (Race 1918) showed chlorine producing oxygen when it was dissolved in water:

Cl2 + H2O = 2HCl + O

In which Cl2 = chlorine, H2O = water, HCl = hydrochloric acid, and O = nascent oxygen.

In a later, well-known publication, Albert D. Hooker stated the theory most clearly: “It should be well understood that chloride of lime, in its industrial application of bleaching, deodorizing, or disinfecting, does not act by its chlorine, but by its oxygen.” (Emphasis in original.) (Hooker 1913)

In 1918, Joseph Race described the controversy surrounding chlorine’s mode of action in water. Race stated that Fischer and Proskauer (1884) believed that chlorine was not directly toxic. Warouzoff, Winograoff, and Kolessnikoff (1886) found that chlorine gas killed airborne tetanus spores. Interestingly, Race quoted at length John L. Leal’s second-trial testimony supporting the theory of disinfection by nascent or potential oxygen. However, Race’s laboratory work in 1915–17 appeared to convince him that disinfection was caused by the direct toxic action of chlorine and not by nascent oxygen. (Race 1918)

Other publications reflected the confusion over chlorine’s mechanism of action. In his 1917 textbook, Ellms (who would testify in the second Jersey City trial) presented equations showing the formation of hypochlorous acid (HOCl) when chlorine was added to water. At this point in his discussion, he was correct. However, he then stated “The HOCL is decomposed into HCl and oxygen, which latter acts upon any oxidizable matter that may be present.” (Ellms 1917)

2HOCL à 2HCl + O2

In this case, HOCl = hypochlorous acid and O= oxygen.

“The energy liberated by the decomposition of the hypochlorous acid, as previously stated, explains the powerful oxidizing action of the evolved oxygen, and the destructive effect upon the microorganisms. Chlorine or the hypochlorites are therefore, merely agents for the production of oxygen under conditions which render it extremely active.” (Ellms 1917)

Abel Wolman and I.H. Enslow tried to put a stop to the nascent oxygen theory in 1919, but it persisted long after that. (Fair and Geyer 1954) We know now that HOCl exists in water in equilibrium with the dissociated hypochlorite ion and that the degree of dissociation is a function of the water’s pH.

HOCL ↔ OCl + H+

For this equation, OCl = hypochlorite ion and H+ = hydrogen ion.

In a textbook published in 1924, authors F.E. Turneaure and H.L. Russell tried to straddle the issue:

“The reaction of both hypochlorite and liquid chlorine in sterilization of water is substantially the same. The accepted theory is that the chlorine forms hypochlorous acid with the water setting free nascent oxygen which is considered the effective sterilization agent. Some authorities, however, contend that the chlorine itself has a toxic effect upon the bacteria.” (Turneaure and Russell 1924)

A 1935 rewrite of Sedgwick’s famous book on sanitary science favored the direct action of chlorine theory but did not totally discount the action by nascent oxygen.

“The mechanism by which chlorine brings about germicidal action is still undetermined. It is believed by some that the bacteria are destroyed because of the direct toxic effect of the chlorine. Others maintain that the introduction of chlorine into water results in the formation of hypochlorous acid—an unstable compound—which breaks up and liberates nascent oxygen and hydrochloric acid, the supposition being that the bacteria are destroyed by the nascent oxygen. . . . Since chlorine compounds can destroy bacteria even when oxygen is not liberated it would seem that those mechanisms that explain the germicidal action of chlorine without hypothesizing the formation of nascent oxygen have a more sound scientific basis.” (Prescott and Horwood 1935)

A 1944 publication by S.L. Chang appeared to put the controversy to rest: “The action of chlorine and chloramine compounds on cysts was attributed to the active chlorine which may oxidize or chlorinate the proteins in the protoplasm. The possibility of action by nascent oxygen liberated by HOCl was indirectly studied, and the evidence strongly indicated that this was unlikely to occur.” (Chang 1944) Since Chang’s publication, nascent oxygen has not been mentioned in professional publications except as a historical curiosity.

In their classic 1954 textbook on water and wastewater engineering, Gordon M. Fair and John C. Geyer addressed the historically curious concept and stated categorically that oxygen did not accomplish disinfection. It was chlorine in its various forms in water that was toxic to bacteria. (Fair and Geyer 1954) Like many a scientific theory that conveniently explained a troubling public relations problem, it took a lot of time to kill the nascent oxygen idea.


  • Chang, S.L. 1944. “Destruction of Micro-Organisms.” Journal AWWA. 36:11 1192-1207.
  • Davies, Edward. 1878. “The Nascent State as Affecting Chemical Action.” The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions. 8: 485-6.
  • Ellms, Joseph W. 1917. Water Purification. New York City, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill.
  • Fair, Gordon M., and John C. Geyer. 1954. Water Supply and Waste-water Disposal. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Hooker, Albert D. 1913. Chloride of Lime in Sanitation. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.
  • McGuire, Michael J. The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver:American Water Works Association, 2013.
  • Prescott, Samuel C. and Murray P. Horwood. 1935. Sedgwick’s Principles of Sanitary Science and the Public Health: Rewritten and Enlarged. New York:McMillan.
  • Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Turneaure, F.E., and H.L. Russell. 1924. Public Water-Supplies: Requirements, Resources, and the Construction of Works. 3rd Edition. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Polluted South Platte River

December 22, 1998New York Times headline—Observatory:  Pollution Runs Through It. “A river is like a highway, flowing through the landscape. Unfortunately, according to a new study, it is also like a car, polluting the air as it rolls along.

Scientists from the United States Geological Survey, in a study of the South Platte River in Nebraska and Colorado, determined that the river gives off large amounts of nitrous oxide, a gas that acts as a catalyst in the destruction of ozone in the atmosphere.

Like many rivers, the South Platte is rich in nitrates and ammonium, from agricultural runoff and the discharges from sewage treatment plants.

Microbes turn these nitrogen sources into nitrous oxide. The researchers, whose work was published in the Internet edition of Environmental Science and Technology, found that the river in many places was supersaturated in nitrous oxide, with the result that much of it entered the atmosphere.

The scientists estimated that the amount of the gas emitted along a 450-mile stretch of the river each year was equivalent to that produced by all the worst sewage treatment plants in the United States.

And although they said more studies were needed, they added that if the South Platte is typical, as seems likely, rivers are a major source of man-made nitrous oxide pollution.”

December 21, 1868: Birth of George Warren Fuller

George Warren Fuller, 1903, 35 years old

December 21, 1868:  Birth of George Warren Fuller in Franklin, Massachusetts. George Warren Fuller was, quite simply, the greatest sanitary engineer of his time, and his time was long—lasting from 1895 to 1934.  In truth, we have not seen his like since.  How did he reach the pinnacle of his field?  What early influences led him on his path? There is a biography of Fuller on Wikipedia that I wrote which summarizes his life from a “neutral point of view.” The material below is taken in part from Chapter 7 of The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight To Save Lives. By design, it gives more of a personal flavor to his life.

George Warren Fuller was born in Franklin, Massachusetts on December 21, 1868—ten years after the death of Dr. John Snow and ten years after the birth of Dr. John L. Leal.  He was the son of George Newell Fuller and Harriet Martha Craig. There is not much known about his father who was simply described as a farmer.  His father was born on the Fuller family property in Franklin, Massachusetts on November 22, 1819.

Harriet Martha Craig was born on February 2, 1841, grew up near Leicester, Massachusetts, and attended Mount Holyoke College, but she did not graduate.  Her final year at the institution was 1865.  They were married on November 15, 1866 when he was 46 and she was only 25.  They settled down in the Franklin-Medway area of rural Massachusetts for a quiet life of farming on the ancestral Fuller family property.  They had two children, George W. and Mabel B. who was born in 1876.  We know that George kept in touch with his younger sister in later years.  She married Carl W. DeVoe and moved to Jerome, Idaho. George owned a ranch in Idaho and must have visited her there.

Place names in Massachusetts have changed over the past several hundred years as the land area covering certain towns changed due to the expansion and contraction of town boundaries or as a result of new towns being carved off from old ones.  Towns that figured prominently in Fuller’s history, Dedham, Franklin and West Medway, all describe the same general area, which is about 10-25 miles southwest of Boston.

We know only a little about his early education.  One report observed:

“George Warren Fuller was at the head of his class when he attended the Dedham schools. His scholarship was, of course, a source of great satisfaction to his mother. At sixteen he passed the examination for entrance at MIT but, his father having died a few weeks before, it was thought best for him to have a fourth year in high school….”

After his father’s death on May 3, 1885, his mother moved 2,500 miles away to Claremont, California where she lived until she died in 1915.  George must have felt that he had lost both parents at the same time.  We do not know if he was looking for a stable family life to replace the one he had lost, but we do know that he married when he was only two years out of high school, in 1888.  His first wife, Lucy Hunter was born in October 1869 and died far too young on March 18, 1895. Lucy came from a family who immigrated to America from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  Her father was born about 1830 and listed his occupation as farmer.  Her mother, Sarah, was born about 1845.  The farming family had seven children, three boys and four girls.  They must have moved to Boston from New Brunswick sometime between 1877 and 1880.  The youngest boy, Harry, was born in New Brunswick about 1877. I recently heard from a descendant of Lucy Fuller who was researching her family. According to her second cousin, three times removed, the family was sailing from Northern Ireland to Philadelphia in 1767 when their ship was wrecked off of Nova Scotia. Lucy’s family eventually made it to Boston while many of the other Hunters moved on to Ontario, Canada.

In 1880, the U.S. census showed that her family lived in Boston at 218 Bennington Street, which is now near Boston Logan International Airport and was located near cultivated land in the late 1800s.  The address is about three miles from the MIT campus, as the crow flies.

Lucy was 18 years old and Fuller was 20 years old when they were married.  Fuller was only in his second year at university (1886-1890).  They had one son, Myron E. Fuller who was born in Boston on June 4, 1889. We do not know much about the marriage, but we do know that George W. Fuller was issued a passport on May 2, 1890 for his trip to Germany and his continued studies. There is no record that Lucy or Myron applied for a passport or accompanied Fuller to Germany.  Massachusetts death records listed her cause of death as “enteritis” which was a general term used for diseases caused by the ingestion of pathogens from food or water.  The death records listed her as “married” which meant that her marriage to Fuller was not dissolved prior to her death. There is no evidence that George W. Fuller lived with her and their son after 1889.

From a 1910 census report, it is clear that Myron lived with his father in Summit, New Jersey.  One recorded connection we know of between Myron and his father was mentioned in the preface of Fuller’s 1912 book, Sewage Disposal. Fuller acknowledged Myron (who was 22 years old at the time) for creating the index to the book.  One source showed that Fuller and McClintock employed Myron from 1911 to 1916 and again from 1919 until at least 1922. In 1918, Myron registered for the draft and listed his occupation as civil engineer. The same reference showed Myron working for the City of Philadelphia in the Bureau of Surveys—the same occupation as his great-great-great-great grandfather, Ensign Thomas Fuller.  He lived in Philadelphia with his wife and one child.

While Fuller was in Louisville working on the filtration investigations, he met Caroline L. Goodloe who came from a fine, old Louisville family.  In November 1899, Fuller married her in Louisville. They were both 31 years old when they were married.  In May of 1900, husband and wife went on a trip to Europe—a somewhat delayed honeymoon. Their son, Kemp Goodloe Fuller, was born on March 10, 1901. On November 11, 1903, while living in New York City, their second son, Asa W. Fuller was born.

We know from records published in the annual report of the APHA and other sources that Fuller had his offices in New York City at 220 Broadway for many years beginning in 1899, which was the same address given by Allen Hazen for his offices for a short period of time.

Tragically, Caroline Goodloe Fuller died in June 21, 1907, while George W. Fuller was most heavily engaged in numerous water and sewage disposal projects all over the U.S.  At her death, George W. Fuller was living at 309 West 84th Street in New York City with his wife and their sons.  She was 38 years old.

The 1910 Census form showed that Fuller was living at 160 Boulevard, Summit, New Jersey with Alice C. Goodlow (sic) who was identified as his sister-in-law, Mary L. Goodlow (sic) identified as his mother-in-law and his three sons Myron, Kemp G. and Asa.  George’s in-laws had come up from Louisville to help him raise the boys.  Also listed at the same residence was an interesting guest, Grace F. Thomson, 43, born in China of English ancestry and claiming a trade of metal working.  In addition, there were three servants (two Irish and one Greek) making it a full and busy household.  The census form showed him as widowed, so by 1910 he had not remarried.

We know from several accounts, that George Warren Fuller was, in many ways, a big man.  Physically, he was tall.  An account by a colleague said that he was over six feet tall, but passport application forms that Fuller filled out showed that his height was 5 feet 10 inches. Pictures of him from 1903 until at least 1928 showed that he was, to use a descriptor from the time, stout. One description had him at 285 pounds with a size 18 collar.

His hair was dark brown and, in the style of the day, slicked down and parted in the middle.  As time marched on, he began to gray at the temples and then the gray seemed to take over his thinning head of hair.  He was clean-shaven except for his days in Louisville during the filtration studies, when he sported a bushy mustache.  He had blue eyes that could bore into someone who did not please him and twinkle when he was trying to charm a lady.  The round spectacles that he always wore did not detract from the intensity of his blue eyes.

Commentary:  George Warren Fuller Comes to California…in 2012

On April 3 2012, I gave a talk at the California Nevada Section Conference of the American Water Works Association. I teamed up with John Marchand who gave a talk on Dr. John Snow of Broad Street Pump fame. We made a pact to give our talks in costume, which incredibly we both followed through on. Below are links to my talk broken up into three parts (YouTube restrictions). It describes Fuller’s life and the first use of chlorine on the Jersey City water supply in 1908.

Part 1:  http://youtu.be/37WZkp5148w

Part 2:  http://youtu.be/rsicrBvVMc4

Part 3:  http://youtu.be/n6PuOvjjQMI

November 16, 1918: Sanitary Survey of Unnamed City

Privy in terrible condition

November 16, 1918Municipal Journal. A Sanitary Survey of an Unnamed City. The conditions about which you will read were by no means unusual in 1918 in the U.S. “A State Board of Health a few months ago, made a sanitary survey of a certain city (the name of which is unessential) which was of more than usual interest, because of its thoroughness and the sensible recommendations based upon it….

The city in question has a population of about 30,000, of which negroes form a small percentage for a southern city. Although the city is not large, topographical conditions are such as to confine its growth in area, with the result that it presents many of the characteristics of a large, crowded city…. In 1916 fifteen cases of death from typhoid fever were reported, and it is believed that the number was even somewhat greater than this…. A comparison of the distribution of the typhoid cases with the wells and privies indicates that the latter have played an important role in the spread of the disease, the typhoid areas largely coinciding with the unsewered districts, without city water. It should be noted further that these “typhoid areas” are located on steep hillsides where the drainage from privy to well is rapid and direct….

The water supply of the city is derived from the river that flows through it, the intake being located at a point near the upper boundary of the city. This river has a water-shed of 1,550 square miles of mountainous and rather thinly populated territory….Examinations of the river for miles upstream have shown its waters to be heavily polluted before they enter the city. While none of the municipal sewers empty into the river above the waterworks intake [thank goodness], there are two small runs draining an extensive unsewered area which is thickly populated….Thus it is seen that the source of supply is always polluted to a greater or less degree, becoming at times a source of most extreme danger. Only the most thorough filtration and after-treatment can render a water of this character uniformly safe for drinking purposes. Unfortunately the skilled attention that is absolutely essential for the successful operation of a filter plant has not been had until recently.

Purification is secured by coagulation and sedimentation, followed by filtration through so-called mechanical or rapid gravity filters and final treatment with chlorine gas….Just before entering the sedimentation basins, the water receives its dose of coagulant consisting of lime and sulphate of alumina in amounts depending upon the character of the river water as shown by its alkalinity and turbidity….

The man who installed the original hypochlorite plant for final treatment of the water painted its virtues so very bright that he assured the water company that when the river was clear they need not use any chemicals except hypochlorite of lime. It is felt that this ill-advised suggestion may have been in part responsible for the epidemic of typhoid fever the city has just experienced.

The sedimentation basins are two in number, each having a capacity of about 238,000 gallons. At the normal rate of filtration this provides for but one and three-fourths hours storage, a period that is considered far too short to be comparable with adequate coagulation and sedimentation. The control of the chemicals constitutes another objection. The solutions are prepared in large tanks from which they are fed through hand-operated orifices and the rate of dosing is recorded as inches in depth of the tank per hour. Constant-feed, calibrated orifice boxes should be supplied, that the dosing may be more accurately controlled. [see design of such a feed system by George Warren Fuller at the Little Falls treatment plant, Fuller 1903]

From the sedimentation basins the water flows by gravity to the filters, of which there are ten units, each having a superficial area of 230 square feet. At a normal rate of two gallons per square foot a minute, or 125 million gallons per acre per twenty-four hours, the ten units have a combined capacity of about 6.5 million gallons a day. As originally constructed, each unit was provided with a loss-of-head gage, rate controller, and individual sampling pump, all of which equipment has now been dismantled. A loss-of-head gage is essential if accurate knowledge of what each unit is doing and of the proper time to wash is to be had. As it now is, the filter man guesses at the proper time to wash the dirt out of the filter by the position of the inlet float; the dirtier the sand, the higher the level of water on the bed and the more quiet the float—a rather round-about method.

After washing, the filters are allowed to waste for a short time and then turned into the clear well. The lack of any rate controllers on the filters makes it certain that the most recently washed units will be filtering far in excess of the rate for which they were designed. Rate controllers would prevent the units from delivering more than a definite maximum at any time. With as small a clear-well as the one here provided (approximately 37,000 gallons), the lack of this important device becomes even more dangerous in that the pull of the high-service pumps is thrown almost directly upon the filters….

Washing of the filters is effected by forcing water and air through them from below. The water for washing is taken directly from the clear well by an electrically driven centrifugal pump. As has been previously noted, washing cannot be conducted on anything like a scientific basis owing to the lack of loss-of-head gages. The filters are, however, washed at least once a day, and more often if deemed necessary.

From the clear-water well, which is located beneath the filters, the water flows to the high-service pumps, receiving on the way a final treatment with chlorine. Chlorine gas is an excellent sterilizing agent in water, and small doses can effect a remarkable reduction in the number of bacteria present. The chlorine gas is introduced by a direct-feed manual-control chlorinator. In this plant the fact that the dose is not automatically controlled is extremely unfortunate, and if the plant were not in the hands of a skilled filter operator would be a very serious objection….

With a safe and potable water available [forsooth!], there is no excuse for the continuation in use of the 189 private wells in the city. While no analyses have been made to learn the extent to which the wells are polluted, there can be little doubt from their location and construction that many of them are dangerously contaminated.” (emphasis added)

Commentary:  The hard, cold, and alarming facts related in this 1918 sanitary survey of an anonymous southern U.S. city make it quite evident why its identity was not revealed. The typhoid death rate of 50 per 100,000 people in 1916 is shockingly high for a city that is served by a water supply that was both filtered and chlorinated. Obviously, something is terribly wrong with the operation of the treatment plant and the condition of private wells. The person conducting the sanitary survey expressed some optimism about current personnel and operations, but a sanitary survey conducted a year after would be needed to see if that optimism was justified.

The problems related in this sanitary survey should make us all glad that we live in the 21st century where we are blessed (at least in developed countries) with safe drinking water supplies.

Reference:  “A Sanitary Survey of a City.” 1918. Municipal Journal. 45:19 November 9, 1918, 359-61, 383-6.

October 24, 1879: Birth of Vincent B. Nesfield; 1981: Melting Icebergs; 1632: Birth of van Leeuwenhoek

October 24, 1879:  Birth of Vincent B. Nesfield. Nesfield was the first person to use chlorine gas under pressure to disinfect drinking water. In 1903, Lieutenant Vincent B. Nesfield of the British Indian Medical Services published a remarkable paper in a British public health journal. (Nesfield 1903) In the paper, he described his search for a chemical disinfectant to purify drinking water that would be suitable for use in the field as part of a military campaign.  He came up with the idea of producing chlorine gas by electrolytic cells and then compressing the gas with 6 atmospheres of pressure until it liquefied which facilitated its storage in lead-lined steel tanks that held about 20 pounds of liquid chlorine.  He treated 50 gallon batches of water by submerging the gas valve of the chlorine cylinder and opening it slightly to bubble the chlorine gas into the water.

In a later paper, Nesfield stated that about 5.4 mg/L of chlorine (2 grams per 100 gallons) killed all typhoid and cholera bacteria.  After a 5-minute contact time, he added sodium sulphite to the treated water to remove the excess chlorine and prevent taste problems. (Nesfield 1905) To say that he was ahead of his time is a vast understatement.  It would be 7 years before liquid chlorine in pressurized cylinders was widely available in the U.S. for water utilities to use as an alternative to chloride of lime.

Passing references to Nesfield’s unique treatment method can be found in some publications in the early 20th century.  In a discussion of two papers on chlorination of water and sewage in 1911, Dr. L.P. Kinnicutt mentioned Nesfield’s liquid chlorine addition method and went on to describe an iodine tablet developed by Nesfield that was more portable (and undoubtedly caused more taste problems).  Therefore, there was at least some early knowledge in the U.S. of the use of liquid chlorine to disinfect drinking water.  There was one mention of Nesfield’s system of purification in a 1920 encyclopedia section on water supply. (Hill 1920) A note in a journal devoted to tropical medicine in 1907, described how successful chlorination was for a unit of the British colonial army marching toward Agra. (Pure Water 1907)

There was limited mention of Nesfield and his groundbreaking work on chlorine disinfection in histories of drinking water disinfection.  In Race’s remarkable 1918 book on chlorination of water, he gave Nesfield credit for the first use of liquefied chlorine for the disinfection of water. (Race 1918) Baker devoted a few sentences to Nesfield’s contributions. (Baker 1981) In a later summary of the progress of drinking water disinfection in 1950, Race again gave credit for Nesfield’s unique application of chlorine technology. (Race 1950)


Baker, Moses N. 1981. The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver, Co.: American Water Works Association.

Hill, Henry W. 1920. “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution.” In The Encyclopedia Americana, 39–65.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1903. “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home.” The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

“Pure Water.” 1907. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 10(January 15): 30.

Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Race, Joseph. 1950. “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949.” Journal Institution of Water Engineers. 4: 479–505.

October 24, 1981 New York Times–Producing Fresh Water By Melting Icebergs. “Icebergs can be melted in such a way as to produce fresh water and mechanical energy. The proposed operation is described in a patent awarded this week to three employees of the Department of Agriculture Research Center, Berkeley, Calif.

The procedure, as outlined by Wayne M. Camirand, John M. Randall and Earl Hautala in patent 4,295,333, starts with evaporating warm surface water by pumping it into a vacuum. The vapor produces electrical energy by operating a turbine. The vapor is then condensed by cold water from the iceberg, and the mixture is used to melt the iceberg itself. The added moisture from the vapor creates a volume of fresh water larger than that produced by melting the iceberg alone.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Randall said that although the iceberg procedure had not yet been followed, much interest had been shown in towing icebergs from Antarctica, and several small ocean thermal energy conversion plants had been built and operated experimentally.”

Commentary: I am taking bets on whether or not this patent was ever commercialized. Had they known, all the three gents had to do is wait 30 years for climate change to melt icebergs for them. Is this where the phrase “patently absurd” comes from?

October 24, 1632:  Birthday of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Throughout the history of scientific improvement, the development of the tools for scientists helped incremental increases in knowledge as well as allowing them to break new barriers and make discoveries that would otherwise not have been possible.  Such is the case for the invention of and improvement to the microscope.

Lenses that magnified things were around for hundreds of years.  Others had assembled multiple lenses in tubes and created the compound microscope.  But it was not until the 17th century that a big leap was made. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in Delft of what is now called the Netherlands.  In the same year, Galileo published his famous work Dialogue in which he argued that Copernicus was right—the sun was the center of our solar system.  To put it mildly, science was in its infancy.  The Catholic Church rewarded Galileo for his insight by declaring him heretic and holding him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

There are many descriptions of van Leeuwenhoek’s life but the most entertaining is the lyrical narrative by Paul de Kruif in his classic book Microbe Hunters.  De Kruif described van Leeuwenhoek as a janitor and shopkeeper, and, indeed, he was.  However, van Leeuwenhoek was also obsessed with grinding lenses, making better microscopes and viewing the, as yet, unviewed microbial world.

While looking around his house for common items to study with his inventions, he decided to look at drops of water and discovered that there were “beasties” swimming around.  After a significant amount of time, which he used to perfect his tool and hone his descriptions of the microbial world, van Leeuwenhoek began corresponding with the Royal Society in London.  Despite initial skepticism, the Royal Society elected him to their august body.  Van Leeuwenhoek did not share well with others and preferred to keep his improvements to the microscope to himself.  He did share his many discoveries in hundreds of letters to the Royal Society including many descriptions of bacteria.  He was the first person to make these observations.

After van Leeuwenhoek, others improved the microscope including Joseph Lister’s father, Joseph Jackson Lister.  In 1832, the elder Lister was able, through manipulation of the lenses in the tube, to eliminate the “chromatic effect” or light halos around the object being observed. Thus, a relatively sophisticated tool was available for Pasteur to view his yeasts, bacteria and other microbes.


De Kruif, Paul. Microbe Hunters. New York:Harcourt, 1996.

Godlee, Rickman J. Lord Lister. Second edition, London:MacMillan, 1918.

October 15, 1918: First Water Permit Issued to LADWP; 1988: Uranium Leak

October 15, 1918:  Date of first water permit issued to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the Owens Valley water supply. On this date, the California Department of Public Health issued the first water supply permit to LADWP for the Owens Valley water supply, which started operation on November 5, 1913. The permit includes a report authored by Ralph Hilscher who was the Southern Division Engineer at the time. The report catalogues all of the major features of the Owens Valley supply including the physical facilities built to transport the water 233 miles to Los Angeles. In the report is a detailed assessment of the potential sources of contamination of the water supply by human habitation. The report stressed that only 1.5 persons per square mile occupied the Owens Valley aqueduct watershed compared with 132 persons per square mile, which was stated as typical of watersheds in Massachusetts.

Ignored were the potential pathogens from animals such as deer, beavers and cows (Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum). Health authorities simply were not aware at that time of the potential for these pathogen sources to contaminate a water supply and cause disease in humans (zoonotic diseases). A statement in the report makes this point clearly, “It is the consensus of opinion among sanitarians that human waterborne diseases have their origin only in human beings.”

The report recognized the purifying action of the large reservoirs in the Owens Valley system that had extensive detention times, which were instrumental in reducing pathogen concentrations.

Another fact that I was unaware of until I read the report was that the first 24 miles of the aqueduct were earthen-lined and not lined with concrete.

Missing from the report is any mention of the use of chlorine for disinfection. Other literature sources had estimated that chlorination of the LA Aqueduct supply could have taken place as early as 1915. It is clear from the Department of Public Health report that any chlorination of LA water supplies around 1915 must have referred to disinfection of the water from infiltration galleries along the Los Angeles River. One report that I have read (unconfirmed) stated that ammonia was also added at the infiltration galleries to form chloramines. I have still not located a firm date when the Owens Valley supply was chlorinated.

A letter dated December 12, 1924, from Carl Wilson who was the Laboratory Director for the LADWP to C.G. Gillespie of the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering summarized the progress that they had made in applying chlorine to their system. In that letter are two curious statements by Mr. Wilson. First, he only planned to operate chlorinators treating water from the reservoirs during the rainy season because no local runoff would be entering the hillside reservoirs. Second, he did not see the need to determine chlorine residual using the orthotolidine method, but he would do so if required by the Department. It took a long time for sanitary practices to penetrate the operational mindset of all water utilities not just the LADWP. From a paper published in 1935, we know that the entire system was chlorinated by that time with multiple application points in the system.

Read the entire permit for a fascinating view into the thinking of a regulatory agency during the early days of our understanding of watershed protection and maintenance of a water supply that would be free from disease causing microorganisms.

Reference:  Goudey, R.F. “Chlorination of Los Angeles Water Supply.” Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1935 June; 25(6): 730–734. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1558978/ Accessed October 14, 2013.

Credit:  Thanks to Susan Brownstein of LADWP for sharing a copy of the permit with me.

Uranium Contaminated Site

October 15, 1988: New York Times headline–U.S., for Decades, Let Uranium Leak at Weapon Plant. “Government officials overseeing a nuclear weapon plant in Ohio knew for decades that they were releasing thousands of tons of radioactive uranium waste into the environment, exposing thousands of workers and residents in the region, a Congressional panel said today.

The Government decided not to spend the money to clean up three major sources of contamination, Energy Department officials said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. Runoff from the plant carried tons of the waste into drinking water wells in the area and the Great Miami River; leaky pits at the plant, storing waste water containing uranium emissions and other radioactive materials, leaked into the water supplies, and the plant emitted radioactive particles into the air…Fernald’s problems with radioactive emissions have been public knowledge and a source of anxiety and frustration for several years.

But in court documents discussed today at the hearing and reported last week by the Cincinnati papers, Government officials acknowledged for the first time that ”the Government knew full well that the normal operation of the Fernald plant would result in emissions of uranium and other substances” into water supplies and into the atmosphere.”