In Praise of Wastewater Managers

August is National Water Quality month.  This Sunday, August 31 is the 160th anniversary of the outbreak of one of the worst cholera epidemics to hit London – an epidemic that ultimately led to the identification of contaminated water as a conduit for the disease.

Humans have always sought sources of drinking water, and some water clearly looks and tastes better.  But we didn’t always understand that the wrong water could make us sick.

Where Does Your Water Come From?

Before I came to CFWE, I worked as a historical interpreter.  Whether wearing pioneer or Civil War-era dress, I always got the same question – “Don’t you wish you lived back then?”  And my answer was always no.  When asked why I prefer the present, the first thing on my list is always indoor plumbing.

Today, we usually take clean drinking water and sanitation systems for granted.   We turn on the tap and immediately have clear water.  We flush toilets and rinse waste down the drain.  Where does the water come from?  Where does it go, and how is it made clean again?  We can live in blissful unawareness – but we owe our health to sanitized water.

It’s easy to lose sight of how recent a phenomenon this is.

Sewage Treatment, 160 Short Years Ago

Long before I knew I’d work in water education, I read a fascinating book on the 1854 cholera epidemic, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.  It’s an engrossing read that will definitely make you appreciate our current sanitation facilities.

Residents of London in 1854 certainly did not have the water luxuries we have today.  The Victorian metropolis had no formal system of waste management.  Whereas we rely on pipes and filtration systems, Victorian Londoners relied in no small part on people.  Distinct specialists recycled London’s waste.

For example, the toshers searched the rivers for bits of metal, using poles to probe the ground in front of them and to help pull themselves out of quagmires.  They were a step up from the mud larks, often children, who scavenged the rivers for anything the toshers passed over – usually bits of old rope or wood or coal.  And sewer-hunters probed London’s early system for coins, jewelry, and other treasures.  Theirs was a dangerous job – hazards included being incapacitated by noxious fumes, getting attacked by rats, or being incinerated if their lanterns met a pocket of methane gas.  These and various other groups collected waste and effectively recycled it, supplying more established trades with raw materials.

But the big waste-recycling problem facing London was human waste.  London’s population had rapidly expanded, going from about a million people in 1800 to 2.4 million in 1854.  Sanitation, such as it was, had not kept up.  Most people tossed their waste into cesspits next to their houses, or even into their basements – a survey from 1849 found that 5% of homes had excrement piling up in cellars.  These cesspools were periodically cleaned by another class of human recyclers – the night-soil men.

Night-soil men had the unenviable job of emptying cesspits and carting the excrement away to the countryside, where it would be used as fertilizer.  These men commanded high wages for their work, but a problem arose.  As London expanded, the distance to the countryside increased, and the night-soil men charged higher rates to cover transport costs.  Many Londoners decided to let their cesspits build up rather than pay.  And as the city’s population increased, so did its accumulated waste.

At around this time, London modernized its sewer system.  London’s sewers were originally intended to carry away surface water, not human waste.  During the 1840s, the city developed a vast new system to try to meet demand.  This system, however, discharged waste into the River Thames – which was also the primary source of drinking water for Londoners.  The sewer system had unintentionally engineered the perfect conditions for a cholera epidemic.

Death on Tap

Cholera does not travel through the air – to become infected, a human must ingest the bacteria.  To spread, cholera bacteria need conditions where humans regularly consume each other’s excrement.  Humans naturally avoid this.  Consequently, although cholera is an ancient disease, it didn’t become a global killer until the nineteenth century – when people began living densely in cities with inadequate infrastructure, like Victorian London.

But people didn’t blame cholera epidemics on cities, infrastructure, or water.  The prevailing theory held that diseases spread through bad smells.  Victorians blamed diseases on miasma – noxious air.

You can understand why this theory might have held weight.  Given the number of overflowing cesspits in the city, the air was undoubtedly foul-smelling. London’s sanitation efforts therefore concentrated on eliminating bad odors.  This included updating the sewer system, which then delivered cholera bacteria directly to Londoners’ small intestines.

But this prevailing disease theory began to change with the 1854 cholera epidemic.

1854:  Connecting the Dots

This epidemic began on August 31 in a London neighborhood called the Golden Square.  Over the next three days, 127 people died.  By the end of the outbreak, 616 people had died, and the mortality rate was 12.8% in some parts of the city.  This outbreak caught the attention of a physician named John Snow.

Dr. Snow found the miasma theory of disease inadequate.  One could be in direct contact with a cholera patient and not catch the disease, and yet others in the same neighborhood (or even the same building), who had no personal contact, could contract it.  If all were breathing the same noxious air, what was the explanation?  And why were so many of the London scavenger classes, including the sewer-hunters, so healthy?

In 1849, Snow proposed a water-borne theory of cholera transmission.  It didn’t gain much traction.  Snow saw the 1854 outbreak as a chance for more research.  He investigated the Golden Square outbreak and linked the deaths to the drinking water from a pump on Broad Street.  Snow persuaded the authorities to lock the pump.  Later investigations found that the well was connected to a neighboring cesspit, which was connected to the home of one of the first victims of the cholera epidemic.

Unfortunately, Snow’s discovery did not change opinions overnight.  It took years for the water-transmission theory to be accepted, and longer still for the germ theory of disease to gain acceptance.

Fortune of the Frontier

Anyone who has ever played The Oregon Trail game likely remembers our players falling ill with dysentery or cholera, or encountering bad water.  Water quality and sanitation issues affected the United States as well as Europe (a cholera epidemic struck New York City in 1832).  Colorado’s cities, however, were perhaps spared the worst of these epidemics.  Denver was founded in 1858, four years after the Golden Square outbreak.  As our cities grew, we had the advantage of new scientific understanding, but developing sanitation facilities has never been easy.

The Golden Square cholera outbreak was only 160 years ago.  This may seem like a long time, but humans have needed to find sources of drinking water and dispose of waste forever.  Just 160 years ago, we didn’t yet understand that mixing waste with our drinking water could literally kill us.  It took scientists like John Snow to identify this problem, and it takes thousands of water and sanitation workers today to ensure our drinking water’s quality.

Guaranteeing water quality may not be a glamorous job, but we owe these men and women our health. So in these waning days of August, take a moment to thank your water and wastewater managers!

Read more about Colorado’s water quality and sanitation in the 2013 Headwaters issue on water utilities and the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Water Quality Protection.

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