Saturday, September 15, 2007

It could make a guy give up drinking...water

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, water supply, waterborne diseases

Ooh! A water main broke! Hey, kids, lets splash around in it before the grownups chase us off!! What fun!

Before the fun is over, someone will close a valve to shut off this section of pipe so it is safe to work on. One result will be contamination of the main. Oh, they'll flush the section for a while, but if they're smart, they will also issue a warning to people to boil their drinking water for a few days.

This image is from Dubuque, Iowa, in 2001, but a similar scenario is playing out in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania as I write. A warning went out to four places to boil water for the coming week, due to "loss of pressure".

In 1999, while laying fiber optic cable underground in Boulder, Colorado, workers broke a water main. The people made a joke of it.

Loss of pressure in a water system is no joke. The piping system under our streets, that we almost never see, is kept at a positive pressure, not just to keep it flowing, but to keep contamination out. Positive pressure is the last line of defense most of us have, keeping our tap water drinkable. It doesn't matter what measures the water supply company takes to filter, chlorinate, and/or ozonate water; once it gets into the "water system", which is often 100 years old or older, positive pressure is all that keeps stuff OUT of the pipes.

In my neighborhood, something happens to compromise the integrity of the water system about once a year. We typically noticed that the water is "brown", though on rare occasions a radio announcement will occur first. We run a tap at the farthest end of our house's piping system until it runs clear.

We also have a filter carafe for our drinking water. We used to have a tap-mounted filter, but when it began to break down, we got something easier to change filters in, and to replace if needed. I'm thinking to put a carafe—or a pitcher I fill from it—into each bathroom also, so we won't be using tap water even to brush our teeth.

Now that I've read The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink by Dr. Robert D. Morris, I've decided to get those pitchers today. The first paragraph of a long note with which he concludes his book reads
"Since this [his suggestion to put water filters in every home at government expense, or subsidized] is likely to be the most controversial suggestions, allow me to explain my thinking on POU [point of use] filters. Properly installed and maintained home filters provide an extra measure of protection, yield water that is superior to tap water, and are often safer than bottled water at one tenth the cost, with far less environmental impact. They can eliminate pathogens that our treatment plants fail to remove and can remove chemical contaminants including the by-products of chlorination that most water supplies leave in the water. They can also protect us against contaminants that enter through flaws in our aging distribution systems. Finally, if terrorists choose to attack our water supplies, home filters add an extra measure of protection."
Dr. Morris, a few may recall, stirred up the EPA and almost the entire water delivery industry with early studies linking chlorination by-products with cancer rates, in the early 1990s. He is at present a lonely voice promoting proactive remediation of the nation's water supplies.

Nearly all past improvements in public health and water supplies have been reactive. The cholera epidemics that raged in Europe throughout the 1800s (This cholera hospital is in Germany in the 1890s) gradually led to the recognition that cholera is waterborne, and at least in cities like London, water supplies began to be sourced upstream of the effluent outfalls. Prior to that, most "civilized" folk drank diluted sewage.

Almost half the book is devoted to this discovery, primarily the work of Dr. John Show in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s (he died in June 1858), and the discovery of the organism by Robert Koch in 1883.

Vibrio cholerae bacteria look like little commas. Once ingested, a few survive the stomach acid and enter the more alkaline intestine, where they multiply. As they do, they induce the gut to release bicarbonate, which induces massive diarrhea; that's how they spread themselves. Unless sewage is kept separate from water sources, you get a loop, and cholera spreads.

I went to High School in Sandusky, Ohio. I've been to the Cholera Cemetery there. In 1849, people fleeing a cholera epidemic in Cincinnati fled north. Cleveland was on a less convenient railway connection at the time, so many wound up in Sandusky and to the west. Cholera broke out, half the residents fled further west, and the town didn't recover for decades. Though it has the best natural harbor on Lake Erie, Sandusky is a tiny burg compared to Cleveland, just sixty miles away, primarily because of cholera almost years ago.

Just in case you're feeling complacently modern, cholera is endemic in India and other tropical places, where it can spread year-round. There is evidence that Vibrio cholerae is getting more resistant to chlorine...

What is this colorful critter? It is colorful only because of antibody-borne pigments; before they were first developed in the 1970s, the only way to see Cryptosporidium parvum was by putting a little India ink on a slide preparation; the cysts were the transparent spheres, the only objects on the slide that the ink doesn't stain.

This organism is prevalent in many watersheds, where many animals seem to carry it with little ill effect. It causes a diarrheal disease similar to cholera, which can be deadly to those with weaker immune systems (organ recipients, chemotherapy patients, AIDs patients, children, and the elderly). The cysts are unaffected by not only chlorinated water, but bleach. It became famous in Milwaukee in 1993, when it caused the largest outbreak of waterborne disease in US history. More than 400,000—about half the residents "served" by a contaminated water plant—were sickened and about 100 died.

The blurb reads:
"In 1995, the first outbreak of toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii) linked to a municipal drinking water supply occurred in British Columbia." (Source: National Water Research Institute of Canada)
We may have heard of toxoplasmosis as "cat scratch fever". It is a bit worse than a fever. In some people, it ravages the nervous system and other organs, and can kill. With more and more of my generation getting chemotherapy at some point in our lives, this prevalent parasite is a growing threat.

But the greatest threat is complacency. Dr. Morris explains how changing standards for pipe durability almost diabolically conspired to set up a system like Justice Holmes's "One-hoss Shay", that fell apart to sawdust one hundred years after its construction. The year 2000 marked the time limit for pipes laid in 1875 that were designed to last 125 years, those laid in 1900 with a 100-year design, and those laid in 1925 with—you guessed it—a 75-year design. Rapidly increasing pipe failures around the country simply hint at the situation.

Dr. Morris ends his book with a seven-point "Modest Proposal." Considering that political "leaders" seldom do anything proactive, responding only to disasters, I suggest you, dear reader, get some of your own filtering equipment, a filter carafe at least, and prepare to ride out the multi-trillion-dollar replacement of the water systems of everywhere, USA...and eventually, all the planet. When will we realize that the least expensive way to gain friends around the world is to give them a clean water supply that works? Compared to war, water is far.

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