From Rome To New Jersey: A History Of Water And Public Health

by | Feb 23, 2018 | By State, Education, Inflow & Infiltration, Infrastructure, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Water Loss, Water Solutions

The relationship between public health, clean water and sanitation has been explored since ancient times – the Greeks observed a connection between lifestyle, social class and health, but there were no public water supplies or sewers. It is speculated many ancient Grecian cities were established so far from bodies of water to protect the population from waterborne disease.

Although the Romans are cited as a benchmark for sanitation and hygiene, their idea of cleanliness was different from modern times. It is theorized water wasn’t frequently changed in the famous baths, spreading disease and parasites, and the sewers beneath Rome didn’t remove waste and sewage, but provided drainage and prevented flooding. The Romans were more successful at providing potable water. Using a series of aqueducts, water was brought from as far away as 60 miles outside the city and treated using methods such as aeration and settling basins, although some water sources were cleaner and more desirable than others.

Like ancient Greece, Medieval towns didn’t have sewers, but unlike the Greeks, Medieval people threw their garbage and waste into the street. Monasteries did have fresh running water, washrooms, latrines and sewers. Public health and sanitation were more strongly linked following the bubonic plague of 1348, and attempts were made to improve sanitation by improving water supplies and better garbage and sewage disposal.

Cleanliness improved in the early modern age, but in crowded urban areas, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of clean drinking water meant disease – especially waterborne diseases – ravaged populations. Waves of epidemics, including cholera, typhoid and dysentery, all waterborne illnesses, ravaged communities, and doctors simply didn’t know what caused them, only that they seemed to be related to environmental causes – many believed in the miasma theory, that poisoned air caused disease.

Cholera, known as “King Cholera,” was one of the most deadly. Caused by water or food tainted by fecal matter, cholera ripped through communities across the globe, including among the Ohio canals, filled with stagnant water that was the perfect breeding ground for the disease, in 1832. Thousands more died in New York City in the late 1840s.

One of the first people who linked public health and water cleanliness in modern times was Edwin Chadwick, who wrote a report on the sanitary conditions in English slums in 1842, noting a correlation between the lack of a sanitary system and clean water with disease and high mortality rates among the poor. His research led to one of the first modern attempts by a municipality to operate a sewage system.

Dr. John Snow, an epidemiologist, was another early pioneer in linking contamination of public water sources and disease. In 1854, during a cholera outbreak in London, he complied a data map of deaths in the city and analyzed the data.

Snow already suspected disease was spread through contaminated water, having theorized a prior cholera outbreak was linked to the Vauxhall Water Co. It was a theory few others were willing to believe. As a result, more than 600 people died and many more fled during the 1854 epidemic.

Snow noted most of the deaths clustered around a single water pump – one that had been contaminated with sewage from a nearby cesspit. Not only did the deaths cluster around this one pump, but several nearby facilities with their own water sources didn’t have nearly as many cholera cases.

Snow took a sample of water from the offending water pump and found it to be full of small white particles – the bacteria, vibrio cholerae, that causes cholera – after examining it under a microscope. With this information, he convinced officials to remove the pump handle, preventing anyone else from drinking the tainted water. Within a few weeks, the contagion was ended.

During the American Civil Water, three times as many soldiers died from epidemic illness, including dysentery, typhoid and cholera, as did in battle. The practice of digging latrines conveniently near encampments exacerbated the issue. It was these practices that likely polluted the Potomac River and infected Willie Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s son, with typhoid, causing his death in 1862.

Epidemics of waterborne diseases continued to regularly plague the country until the early 20th century, when municipalities began providing treated drinking water through reliable delivery systems, beginning with Jersey City, N.J., in 1908. Within 10 years, typhoid cases dropped by two-thirds and it is nearly unheard of today. Drinking water treatment became widespread, virtually halting waterborne disease in its tracks.

Despite the importance of water systems in maintaining public health, our water systems are reaching the end of their usable lives – some of the Washington, D.C., water system dates back to Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. It is estimated that it will cost $1.3 trillion to fix the country’s water and waste water systems. Billions of gallons of clean drinking water are lost to leaky pipes, and there is no clear path to a system overhaul in sight.

Citizens may not realize they also own part of that aging system – the service line between a water main and a residence is usually the homeowner’s responsibility. Many are unaware of that responsibility or how costly it can be.

Contact us to learn more about how the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program by  HomeServe company, can help educate your residents about their service line responsibilities while providing an affordable repair program.

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