Tag Archives: public health

August 24, 1868: Croton Water Supply Wastage

Terminal reservoir for the Croton Aqueduct about 1875—located on 42nd Street on the site of the current New York Public Library.

August 24, 1868:  New York Timesheadline. Our Water Supply. “If cleanliness be next to godliness, then judging from the quantity of water consumed in New York, our citizens must be very near to being a godly people. But it is to be feared that of the vast quantities of water consumed daily in this City, a very large proportion is wasted. In how many houses is the Croton constantly left running, because it is too much trouble, or too treat an effort of memory to turn it off? How much water is wasted in washing down engine houses, stables, &c., and how much in our hotels and bar rooms? The Commissioners of the Croton Department say that about one-fourth of all the water consumed in this City runs to waste, and perhaps the estimate is not an exaggerated one. The present consumption of water in New York averages sixty millions of gallons per day, or sixty gallons for each inhabitant. This supply, after deducting the quantity necessary for extinguishing fires, for washing and other purposes, would appear to be liberal, though not equal, if we may believe history, to that provided for the citizens of Imperial Rome, who were at liberty to use something like one hundred gallons per day each. Our supply, however, is larger, in proportion to the number of inhabitants, than that of the British Metropolis, and also of some of the principal cities of the Old World. At the same time our water surpasses theirs in purity, a gallon containing but a trifle over four grains of solid matter. It will scarcely perhaps be believed that New Yorkers, before the introduction of the croton were compelled to drink water containing from 20 to 125 grains of impurities per gallon. Yet such was the fact.”

Commentary:  The article goes on to describe how a new reservoir was being constructed in Putnam County to store more water from the Croton supply to provide water to the City even during long, dry summers. Readers should note that this first Croton Aqueduct serving New York City was a buried conduit lined with brick except for river crossings. The second Croton aqueduct which is still being used was not built until 1885-1893.

Inside the Old Croton Aqueduct, photo from Wikipedia

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August 23, 1911: Chicago Water Tanks

August 23, 1911:  Municipal Journalarticle. Water Tanks Cause of Impure Water “Chicago, Ill.-Flat dwellers who patronize Lake Michigan for drinking purposes can get a certificate of quality from the City Health Department. Health Commissioner Young declared that any samples brought to the department drawn from faucets in apartment houses will be tested, and if found to be impure orders will be given to the owners of the buildings to cleanse the tanks on the roofs from which the supply is drawn. Much of the danger from drinking water comes from the neglect of the owners of apartment houses to keep these tanks properly cleaned. The regulations of the Health Department require that these tanks be covered and sufficiently protected to keep cats or other animals from wandering into them. In many of them, however, moss and other vegetable matter accumulates. In practically all buildings more than two stories in height tanks are necessary in order to supply water to the upper floors.”

Commentary:  In Chicago during this period, algae growing in elevated water tanks was the least of a resident’s problems. It was not until the year of this article (1911) that Chicago began installing chlorination stations on the pumping facilities from Lake Michigan. Prior to this, death from severe typhoid fever epidemics killed many tens of thousands over the decades of the city serving contaminated water. Filtration was not installed until 1947.

August 20, 1831: Birth of Eduard Suess; 1914: Disinfection of Sewage Plant Effluents

Edward Suess

August 20, 1831:Birth of Eduard Suess, Austrian geologist.
He developed the plan for a 69-mile (112-kilometre) aqueduct (completed 1873) that brought fresh water from the Alps to Vienna. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/571632/Eduard-Suess

At the age of nineteen he published a short sketch of the geology of Carlsbad and its mineral waters…n 1862 he published an essay on the soils and water-supply of Vienna http://www.nndb.com/people/266/000097972/

In 1864, the Vienna City Council voted the construction of the First Vienna Spring Water Main, which to this day covers approximately 40 percent of Vienna’s water requirements. It was planned by the geologist and City Council member Eduard Suess and implemented under Mayor Cajetan Felder. The main was to safeguard adequate drinking water supply even for the suburbs and to improve its quality, thereby excluding any further health hazards for the population.

After a construction period of only three years, the First Vienna Spring Water Main was inaugurated on 24 October 1873 by Emperor Francis Joseph I concurrently with the Hochstrahlbrunnen Fountain in Schwarzenbergplatz. The pipeline is 120 kilometres long, cost 16 million Gulden to build and soon became a symbol of Vienna’s liberation from water shortages and dangers of epidemics. In residential buildings, the formerly used domestic wells were gradually replaced by communal water taps. In 1888, over 90 percent of residential buildings situated within Vienna’s (then) municipal territory were already connected to the new main.

http://www.wien.gv.at/english/environment/watersupply/supply/history/first-pipeline.html

August 20, 1914:  Municipal Journalarticle. Operation of Sewage Disposal Plants—Disinfection. “Having determined upon the size of the dose, the next thing is to apply it to the sewage or effluent at a uniform rate. The best practice is to dissolve the required number of pounds in a given amount of water and feed the solution at a definite rate proportional to the flow of liquid to be disinfected. This is not so simple as one might at first suspect. Several things have to be looked out for. The commercial dry powder varies in strength and loses strength considerably when exposed to the air. There must be sufficient water to dissolve out the hypochlorite, and care must be used in mixing the solution. The solution is corrosive and acts on tanks, piping, valves, etc., and it also forms incrustations which cause frequent stoppages in pipes, valves and feeding devices.

Unless it is feasible to analyze each lot of bleach, it should be bought with the available chlorine specified by the dealer. As the material deteriorates upon opening, the contents of a whole container should be mixed at once if possible. In many plants, however, this cannot be done; in such cases the unused material must be kept tightly covered in a cool dry place. While the larger sized containers hold about 700 pounds, at a slight increase in price hypochlorite can be obtained in 350-pound or 100-pound drums, and in many cases the smaller sizes are to be preferred, both because of convenience in handling and to avoid the keeping of large quantities exposed to the atmosphere.

In the mixing of the bleach, the active hypochlorite is dissolved while the inert lime and other insoluble impurities remain. Usually the bleach is thoroughly mixed with a small amount of water into a paste or cream so as to break up the lumps, then more water is added and the whole transferred to the solution tank, and agitated until a thoroughly homogeneous solution is obtained.

As it is very important that the solution be of the same strength throughout, and as this mixing is a laborious process, a power mixer should always be installed except, perhaps, for very small quantities. After all the hypochlorite has been dissolved and the solution once properly stirred up, the strength remains the same throughout the tank.

In some plants the contents of a whole container of bleach are washed out into the solution tank by means, of a stream of water from a hose, and the whole agitated until a thorough solution is obtained. In the mixing, care must be used to get the material thoroughly broken up and agitated so that all the hypochlorite will be dissolved or else a considerable amount of material will be wasted. The writer has known of over fifty per cent waste, due to improper methods of mixing. He has suggested a mixer in the form of a mill or grinder, so that the bleach could be fed through and ground with a stream of water. This he believes would break up lumps and hasten the process.

One should not attempt to dissolve too much hypochlorite in a given amount of water. The solubility of bleach is only about five per cent, and a five per cent solution is difficult to obtain and difficult to handle. It is much better, when possible, to use a weaker solution, say two or three per cent. It is usually better to keep the solution the same strength by mixing the required number of pounds according to the strength of the dry powder, and to vary the dose by changing the feeding device. A rod should be laid off, showing the number of pounds to be used for different depths of water in the tank, from the top down, so that if all of the solution is not run out the rod will show immediately the number of pounds to be used for the amount of water necessary to fill up the tank.”

Commentary:  This article was published about six years after the startup of the chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) feed system ordered by Dr. John L. Leal and built by George Warren Fuller at Boonton Reservoir—see schematic of Fuller’s chemical feed system below. The description of the chloride of lime feed system for sewage treatment plants (above) is very similar to the one shown below. The article is also quite honest about the many problems with using chloride of lime as a source of chlorine to disinfect water. None of these issues were brought to light during the optimistic testimony given by Leal and the other defendant witnesses at the second Jersey City trial. Over time, chloride of lime feed systems were replaced with pressurized systems feeding chlorine gas from storage tanks of liquid chlorine stored under pressure.

August 19, 1908: Passaic River Pollution Case

1895 Map of Paterson, NJ. Note how the Passaic River practically surrounds the city.

August 19, 1908:  Municipal Journal and Engineerarticle. Stream Pollution Decisions. “In the State of New Jersey an award was recently made by Vice-Chancellor Stevens of the State Court of Chancery in the case of damages claimed to be caused by the pollution of the Passaic river, which introduced some novel methods which may probably be accepted as a precedent in other cases. The city of Paterson discharges sewage into the stream and, the Courts of the State having ruled that riparian owners below the outlets could not claim damages unless the stream received more sewage than it could dilute to an inoffensive condition, no action was taken at first. In time, however, it became evident that a nuisance was being created and complaints to the Paterson Board of Health, to the State Board of Health and to the Legislature having resulted in no abatement of the same, owners of about twenty of the riparian properties, each from 150 to 600 feet deep, brought a suit for injunction to restrain the city from damaging the property owners. The court ruled that an injunction which would prevent the city from using its sewers would work a far greater injury than that being suffered by the property owners, and ordered that instead the city should pay damages in amounts to be settled by a Court of Equity.

Action in such a court was accordingly brought and the city agreed that it would cease polluting the river in the manner complained of within five years from that time. The matter therefore resolved itself into a determination of the amount of damages inflicted upon the owners from the time the damage began until the time promised for its discontinuance. In fixing the first date a large amount of testimony, both expert and otherwise, was taken by the court; but the former, calculated to show what amount of sewage can be discharged into a stream without creating a nuisance, was apparently considered of minor importance by the court. The testimony of the property owners indicated that not until 1892 did the condition of the river have any appreciable influence on the use of the stream for fishing or bathing, but that from then on the evidence of sewage pollution became marked. This date was, accordingly, accepted by the court as that when the damage began, although the plaintiff endeavored to have it made earlier on the ground of the water being rendered unfit for drinking purposes as soon as sewage began to be discharged into it. This last contention was not admitted, however, as there was already such danger from other communities before the Passaic sewers were built.

The fixing of the amount of damages was even more complicated and difficult than determining their duration. The city contested that it was not responsible for contamination due to storm water from the streets, and the court admitted this to a degree only, holding that the city was not responsible for such storm water as flowed over the surface to the river, but was responsible for that discharged thereinto through the sewers. The contention of the city that it should not be held responsible for such injury as would have been done the river by a city of the same size as Paterson, but without sewers, was not admitted by the court. It was also contended that the industrial establishments of the city should stand their proportionate parts of whatever award was made, and although the court appeared to consider the city as responsible for about three-fourths of the total pollution and the industries for one-fourth, it does not appear to either admit or deny this contention, probably leaving this for settlement between such industries and the city.”

Commentary: This case shows the evolution of legal and scientific thought on river pollution after the turn of the 20thcentury. Note that the concept of dilution was losing favor as the impacts of sewage discharge into a watercourse were becoming better understood. Also it is interesting to note the discussion of stormwater and its impact on surface water quality. I believe that rulings such as this and new laws passed by the states were the defining events that led to an improvement in the water quality of rivers in the U.S. The judge in this case was Frederic W. Stevens who as vice chancellor of the Chancery Court of New Jersey was handling, at the same time, the case between Jersey City and the private water company that built the new water supply at Boonton Reservoir.

Dr. John L. Leal had interests in both cases. For ten years (1890 to 1899), he was the public health officer for Paterson, New Jersey. In his last few annual reports to the mayor, he urged that a solution to the water contamination from Paterson sewage discharges on the Passaic River be pursued. Ultimately, an intercepting sewer was built along the Passaic River, which collected all manner of domestic and industrial waste for discharge into New York Harbor. Eventually, a sewage treatment plant was built to treat the wastes. Leal’s involvement as an expert witness in the Jersey City lawsuit is covered in my book, The Chlorine Revolution.

Reference: McGuire, Michael J. 2013. The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

August 16, 1933: Chicago Amoebic Dysentery Outbreak Begins

Entamoeba histolytica

August 16, 1933:  First day of amoebic dysentery outbreak at the Chicago World’s Fair. American Journal of Public Health editorial.“There are many reasons why the outbreak of amebic dysentery in Chicago in 1933 still holds intense interest. Some of these are practical and some scientific. On the practical side it will be recalled that the Exposition for 1934 opened in May. Already some of the daily papers are asking whether precautions have been taken to make the city safe for visitors, and repeating the charge that the news last year was suppressed. On the scientific side it must be pointed out that, as far as we have been able to determine, this is the first epidemic of the sort which has ever been recorded. The health officers had an entirely new problem to deal with, and there is no question that it took them by surprise, as it did everyone else. The paper read before this Association on October 9, 1933, attracted little attention; so little, in fact, that a prominent officer of the Public Health Service who heard it went back to Washington and did not even mention it. Some days later the report of a physician in Indianapolis that there were 5 or 6 cases of the disease in that city, all traceable to Chicago, gave the first intimation of its seriousness. Following this, on November 25, came from Boston what was probably the first information which showed how widespread the infection was, cases in Canada and elsewhere being reported. There was no official publication from the Board of Health of Chicago, as such, until November 18, though on November 14, the radio was used.

The health authorities of Chicago have been blamed severely for suppression of the news and it has been charged that it was done in order not to scare visitors away from the Exposition. A careful and what we believe to be an unbiased investigation fails to substantiate such a motive, though the facts are as just stated.

It must be remembered that very few of these cases occurred in Chicago, two having been reported on August 16, the date which the authorities fixed as the beginning of the outbreak. Owing to the period of incubation, which has been fixed by several observers on epidemiological evidence as from 12 to 30 days for the majority of cases, and even longer for others, visitors had arrived home in Canada and various parts of the United States before being taken sick. Doctors have all been taught that amebic dysentery is a tropical disease, and were not looking for it. Various diagnoses, such as appendicitis, colitis, ulcerative colitis, etc., were made. Operations for appendicitis were entirely too frequent, and the evidence shows that the majority of deaths have occurred among those who were operated on under mistaken diagnoses. Up to January 24, 1934, 721 clinical cases of amebic dysentery in 206 cities have been found and traced to Chicago, in addition to which, 1,049 carriers have been found in Chicago. Ninety-four per cent of the cases detected were guests at either Hotel C or A. Hotel A obtained its water from a tank on the roof of Hotel C. This water had been used for cooling and air conditioning purposes before being pumped to the roof. On January 22, a committee met in Chicago for 6 days and heard reports. Their conclusions have entirely changed the picture if they are accepted. In the meantime engineers have studied the situation, and several men who are specialists in the study of tropical diseases have been called upon.

As early as November 22, the hotels incriminated were directed to improve their plumbing arrangements. The Board of Health has had some 15 engineers or technical assistants making an intensive study of the water and sewage systems of the hotels involved. It must be said that they were in a mess. Like Topsy, the system has just “growed,” without noticeable planning. The house engineers have been in the habit of making repairs and additions without notifying the city. The inspection of hotels is not what it should be. Several city departments have inspectional powers, such as the Building Department, Fire Department, License Department, Department of Gas and Electricity, Smoke Inspection Department, Department for the Inspection of Steam Boilers, Department of Public Works, and Board of Health. It would seem that concentration of responsibility might have led to better results. Since the depression and the bankrupting of the city by the former administration, there is a shortage of inspectors, and even new work is scarcely kept up with, much less watching old work, repairs, alterations, etc. The evidence is that two hotels were responsible for 94 per cent of the cases detected. Careful charts have been made showing the dates of registration of the visitors and the dates when their bills were paid, as well as the appearance of the symptoms and the course of the disease as far as possible. If any considerable number of cases have occurred in the city, they have not been detected.

The hotels involved have been ordered to rearrange entirely their plumbing systems and to install new works throughout. The older part of the chief hotel dates back to the time when steel pipe was considered the best material for such work. The sanitary sewer pipes were found to be badly corroded, so that the writer pushed a five cent kitchen fork through the main pipe. Many leaks existed and, in a number of places, wooden plugs now badly rotted had been used to stop holes. Unfortunately, the sanitary sewer which carried some 62 per cent of the load of the hotel passed directly above the tank in which water was refrigerated for the dining rooms and the floors….”

Commentary:  When I was an undergraduate, my textbooks referred to treatment methods to remove Entamoeba histolyticafrom drinking water. I was always confused about this because I had not heard why this pathogen was such a problem. The editorial from the American Journal of Public Health in 1934 reproduced above (almost in its entirety) gives much of the needed detail about the problem. It appears clear that the outbreak was caused by a cross connection between the sewer system and the drinking water system and that it affected two hotels. I particularly like the visual image of pushing a fork through a corroded sewer pipe. Another report noted that some cases of the disease probably occurred as early as June 1933. A total of 98 deaths were attributed to the outbreak.

August 14, 1913: Sewerage and Health

Typhoid Fever Death Rate and Sewer Construction in Louisville, KY

August 14, 1913: Municipal Journalarticle. Effect of Sewerage Upon Health. “Although nearly all intelligent people will to-day agree that there is great value in a comprehensive sewer system, it is not always easy to demonstrate in particular cases all the advantages gained by its installation. A system for the drainage of storm water in a city is not only a convenience but is a valuable asset because, by preventing damage from flooding in storms, it increases the value of property. In a system of sanitary sewers, the beneficial results are convenience in the disposal of household wastes, a saving in the expense of repeated emptying of cesspools, and above all the resulting improvement in the public health. It has not always been possible to establish and define the relation existing between the prevalence of disease and the degree of sewerage in any community, even by those whose confidence has been greatest in the existence of an intimate relation. It is of the greatest importance, however, that the value of all agencies affecting the public health should be well understood, particularly by those in whose hands have been entrusted the responsibility of the government.

For years typhoid fever has been considered a preventable disease, and on this account the degree of its prevalence indicates the efficiency of a community in guarding the welfare of its own inhabitants. It is well known that this disease is caused by the typhoid bacillus which, under the favorable environment within the human body, multiplies rapidly and is cast off in countless numbers from the alimentary canal and kidneys. It is a function of the sewer system to convey the waste products containing these germs from the patient to a point of disposal where they can do no harm. Should they be carried to any stream or body of water without treatment to be drawn into a water supply or to infect shellfish growing therein, an epidemic may result. The infection is too often communicated directly from a sick person to a well one. In the absence of an efficient sewer system, it might find its way, on account of unsanitary conditions, to milk cans or food supplies. If deposited in exposed privies, the infection might be washed over the surface or through underground channels to shallow wells, or it might be conveyed by flies to accessible food.”

Commentary:  Many authors tried to show that building sewers saved lives. However, the data was just not there. As I said in my book,The Chlorine Revolution, “It’s the Drinking Water Stupid.” The conquest of typhoid fever and other waterborne illnesses was not complete until the drinking water supply was protected with multiple barriers including filtration and chlorination. The graphic in this article shows that there was a lot of variation in the typhoid fever rate until a filtration plant was installed in 1909. After filtration was installed and operational, the death rate plummeted.

August 13, 1865: Death of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

August 13, 1865:Death of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. Semmelweis is credited with recognizing the high death toll among women during childbirth caused by physicians using unsanitary procedures.  He instituted the disinfection of physicians’ hands with a concentrated chlorine solution and the death rate of new mothers plummeted.  His research and practical applications assisted later proponents of the germ theory of disease and also indirectly contributed to the use of chlorine for disinfection of drinking water.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis(July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865) (born Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis) was a Hungarian physician now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “savior of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal, with mortality at 10%–35%. Semmelweis postulated the theory of washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards. He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.”

Reference: Semmelweis, Ignaz. The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Translated by K. Codell Carter. Madison:University of Wisconsin. 1983.