The History of the Water We Drink

Posted on Dec 31, 2014 in Blog, water

The History of the Water We Drink

Almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered with water. With that much water, people have taken it for granted that clean water would always be available. Increasingly, we are finding that this might not be so.
Despite decades of effort cleaning up lakes, streams, and groundwater — and regulations and laws that have been passed to reduce industrial pollution of
water supplies — new forms of pollution are being discovered daily.On one hand, we are told by health authorities – both local and federal – that municipal drinking water supplies are cleaner and healthier than ever.
Yet there are reports, usually buried within documents not readily available to the public, indicating that major problems still face us — and that they may be
worsening. Until the Middle Ages, most advanced societies devoted tremendous effort and financial resources to assure their people had clean water. There are a number of biblical references to the importance of clean water. Ezekiel mentions “healing” polluted water, and both Leviticus and Deuteronomy outline methods of public sanitation.
In the book “The Water We Drink,” Dr. Joshua Barzilay and co-authors cite Roman laws against having a cemetery, furnace, tannery, or slaughterhouse within 25 meters of a well.
Clean water for drinking and bathing was a major concern of the Romans. Most of us are aware of their extensive system of aqueducts. They had an elaborate filtration system, too, much of which is still used today. With the fall of the Roman Empire, however, came an end to public sanitation. Streets littered with garbage and even human waste became a common sight.

Epidemics were the result, yet no efforts were made to correct the situation for nearly 500 years. In fact, for hundreds of years most war-related deaths were due to disease, not battle wounds.
The Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century brought a shift toward science and reasoning as well as widespread industrialization. Yet a new problem appeared:
the industrial pollution of lakes and streams.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that poor sanitation methods began to be widely recognized as a major source for disease. Pasteur and Koch discovered that water
contained microorganisms that could cause human disease, and an effort to clean up water supplies ensued.
In the mid-19th century, a few decades before their theories were published, diarrhea related diseases were the third leading cause of death in the United States, mostly due to contaminated water supplies. Changes in public sanitation — not vaccinations —led to dramatic declines in epidemics.
One of the biggest modern advances in the purification of drinking water was the same system used by the Romans — water filtration. It was first used in Lawrence, Mass., in 1887. The second major advance was chlorination, first used in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1909.
In 1948, the government passed the Federal Pollution Control Act, the first of a series of water protection acts. It was followed by the Clean Water Act.

Industrialization and Water Safety

waterpollutionBy the end of World War II, industrialization, especially in the Northeast, grew by leaps and bounds. Along with a host of new laborsaving devices and improvements in our standard of living came major pollution problems.
Industries dumped tons of waste material in lakes, rivers and streams, which also polluted groundwater. Tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals were produced for the first time in America, as well as the rest of the developed world, and these chemicals ended up in our drinking water in increasing concentrations.
Likewise, with modern farming, billions of pounds of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers blanketed the nation’s farms. Surface and ground waters were
polluted on an unprecedented scale.
Medical scientists had no idea of the impact this enormous amount of pollution would have on human health. The first clue we had a problem came when biologists observed large numbers of dead fish, fish with tumors, and fish with mutations, as well as a dramatic change in fertility in animal exposed to chemicals.
Congress responded by passing the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, which has since grown into a behemoth organization strongly influenced by politics and corporations.
According to World Health Organization statistics, 3.7 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, do not have access to clean water, sanitation systems or both. More than 1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water.
The leading cause of death in the world is diarrhea, mostly suffered by children, and contaminated water is a major cause.
Fortunately, in the United States and in most of the developed world, such epidemics are quite rare. In this country there are 55,000 community water systems supplying water to 90 percent of the population.
Yet, we still have major problems, both from infectious diseases and carcinogens, or cancer causing chemicals.
• Industrialization has led to severe water pollution
• Water treatment systems are contaminated with parasites that can cause vomiting and diarrhea
• Groundwater runoff can contain pesticides called xenoestrogens, which can cause breast cancer as well as premature development of female sexual organs
• Even if your water comes from bottled sources, the container may not be safe. Plastics contain phthalates, which can leach into your water.

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