Drinking Water | James Salzman

Summary of: Drinking Water: A History
By: James Salzman


Dive into the fascinating history and significance of drinking water as we explore the book ‘Drinking Water: A History’ by James Salzman. Discover how water was perceived across different societies over centuries, its role in the Roman Empire, and the struggles faced in sourcing and maintaining clean water supplies in urban areas. Unravel the challenges of water treatment and uncover the potential dangers lurking within the bottled water industry. Lastly, as you navigate through the world of water preservation, learn about our current water crisis and the innovative solutions being proposed to tackle it.

The Enigmatic Allure of Water

Throughout history, water has held a curious position in society; it was often perceived as unfit for consumption by the upper classes, only suitable for the poor or those unable to drink wine or beer. However, this didn’t stop beliefs in the magical properties of water, with numerous legends and tales circling the globe about enchanted wells and springs that could grant immortality or rejuvenation. Despite the historical aversion to drinking water, its mystical allure continues to captivate cultures around the world.

Water, a seemingly ordinary element of life, holds a fascinating and paradoxical history. In ancient Roman society and beyond, it was frowned upon as a beverage for commoners, with upper classes preferring wine or beer. Water was often reserved for children, slaves, and women who couldn’t consume alcoholic beverages. This attitude persisted for centuries, even among the first pilgrims to the New World.

Notwithstanding this view, water has been associated with magical properties in various cultures. Tales of holy water from enchanted springs, wells, and other sources are woven into the folklore of many civilizations. The Fountain of Youth, pursued by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León during the 16th century, serves as a prime example of this intrigue. Similar stories come from Norse mythology, where the god Odin sought a transformative water that flowed beneath Yggdrasil, a tree connecting all worlds. In Islamic lore, Alexander the Great’s adviser Khidr discovered a spring that granted immortality after venturing through the Land of Darkness.

Such mystic reverence for water persisted well into the modern era. As late as the 15th century, English judge Sir John Fortescue believed consuming water was an act of devotion. Even today, people travel from around the world to drink water from a spring in Lourdes, France, where Bernadette Soubirous, a miller’s daughter who saw the Virgin Mary 18 times, was canonized as a saint after her death. It appears that while historical attitudes toward drinking water were tainted by social prejudices, the enchanting allure of its magical potential has remained an enduring fascination.

Rome’s Legacy: Aqueducts and Politics

The Romans forever changed our relationship with water, being the first civilization to provide free water to their citizens and introduce water into private homes. Over 500 years, they constructed 11 impressive aqueduct systems, some spanning over 50 miles and supplying 30 million gallons of water daily. Initially created to support bathhouses, the third aqueduct was built in 144 BC for drinking water. Roman politics shaped Rome’s water supply when Emperor Augustus utilized it as a tool to ward off uprisings by increasing public water stations, known as lacūs, within the city. These lacūs were adorned with decorations proclaiming their connection to the emperor, reminding citizens of the benefits of living under the empire.

Ancient H₂O Fears to Clean Water Revolution

In the past, ancient societies favored beer and wine over water due to the potential risk of illness from consuming contaminated H₂O. The correlation between contaminated water and diseases like cholera remained unknown, leading to unsanitary conditions in urban centers like New York City. The 1800s marked a turning point, with cities like Philadelphia implementing clean public water systems—largely due to Benjamin Franklin’s generosity. As the understanding of the connection between water and disease grew, John Snow’s groundbreaking work in epidemiology revealed the cause of cholera outbreaks. Subsequently, cities started introducing proper sanitation and increased access to clean water, significantly improving life expectancies.

Throughout history, many societies favored beer and wine over water because consuming contaminated water could lead to severe illnesses. However, the reasons behind such water-related ailments remained a mystery, causing unsanitary living conditions in crowded cities like New York City. In 1748, journalist reports described New York City’s drinking water as heavily polluted by waste from humans, animals, and industries.

Despite these issues, clean and safe public water systems took time to be established. As a result, numerous people lost their lives during epidemics, such as the tragic 1832 cholera outbreak that claimed 3,500 lives. It wasn’t until Philadelphia installed a clean water system, largely due to Benjamin Franklin’s support, that New York City pursued similar measures to improve the city’s health conditions.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the significance of clean drinking water became apparent. People had previously linked diseases like cholera to airborne pathogens, but they slowly realized the true origin: contaminated water. John Snow, a London physician, played a pioneering role in this understanding. He is often credited with inventing epidemiology, a field that studies disease patterns within populations. Snow was instrumental in linking the 1854 cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated water pump on Broad Street, marking the first-ever evidence of polluted water causing cholera.

As cities eventually understood the importance of proper sewage and cleanliness, they started implementing effective sewer systems and increasing access to clean water. This major shift contributed to a substantial rise in life expectancies, offering a healthier future for urban populations.

Quenching The Thirst of Cities

The surge of demand for clean water around the twentieth century compelled industrialized cities to explore new water sources. This challenge was particularly evident in New York City, where early attempts at building water infrastructure, such as the Manhattan Company’s project at the Kalch-Hook pond, led to health issues from contaminated water. Subsequent endeavors saw the construction of a new water system that connected the city to the upstream waters in Croton and the distant Catskills, providing New York City with water even today. Across the pond, London’s contaminated Thames led to the infamous “Great Stink” in 1858, prompting more concerted efforts by John Snow and Edwin Chadwick to create a cleaner water source. Government intervention eventually resolved London’s water woes, diminishing the unpleasant stench that once plagued the city.

The Untold Reality of Drinkable Water

Clean, drinkable water seems like a given, but the journey it has to undergo to reach us is loaded with challenges. Freshwater sources often contain contaminants like bacteria and animal excrement, and to make matters worse, we humans contribute to the problem with our pharmaceutical use. As these chemicals escape our bodies and end up in our water supplies, even advanced water treatment systems like chlorination and ultraviolet exposure might not be adequate to render water completely safe.

We often take for granted the clean, drinkable water that flows from our taps, but the truth is, the process of making that water safe for consumption isn’t a walk in the park. It begins with tackling the significant contaminants present in our freshwater sources, including bacteria and animal waste. Recent times have seen an increase in pollution due to human activities, such as using endocrine disruptor-heavy medications.

Endocrine disruptors are organic chemicals that disturb the balance of hormones and can cause problems in immune and reproductive systems. Alarmingly, studies have shown high levels of such chemicals in various wildlife, like the beluga whale in Canada, which had quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exceeding the toxic waste threshold by tenfold. This contamination largely results from medications we consume, as the chemicals exit our bodies unprocessed and enter water sources.

Thankfully, technology has allowed us to develop numerous methods of water treatment, with some dating back to the early 1900s when Middelkerke, Belgium, first introduced chlorine to kill bacteria. Fast forward to the present day, where ultraviolet exposure systems have come into play, providing more advanced ways to purify water.

However, this brings us to an important question: are these treatment methods sufficient? Concerningly, recent research on drinking water in the United States indicates that they might not be. The study found that 56 different pharmaceuticals or their by-products were present in the treated water reaching 40 million citizens. Thus, while our current technology has made significant strides in water purification, there remains room for improvement to guarantee absolute safety.

The Fragile State of Drinking Water

The idea of someone poisoning our water supply seems like something out of a movie, but the vulnerable stages of water provision make it entirely possible. From break-ins at water storage facilities to contamination by bird droppings, the safety of our drinking water can easily be compromised. While over 60,000 chemicals are in use in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes only 91 as legal contaminants, further demonstrating the delicate nature of water safety. The efficacy of the EPA is also heavily dependent on various factors, such as leadership and the allocation of resources.

In the memorable movie, Batman Begins, Gotham’s waters are infiltrated by Scarecrow, who deposits a lethal toxin into the water supply. It’s easy to assume that this scenario seems far-fetched, but in reality, our water supplies can actually be pretty vulnerable. The process of water provision includes sourcing, treating, and distribution. During the distribution stage, a storage facility connects to individual taps in the neighborhood, and here is where the water is most vulnerable to contamination.

Take, for example, an incident that occurred in Blackstone, Massachusetts in 2006. A group of teenagers broke into a water tower, and as a result, the town’s water had to be flushed and tested at a cost of $40,000. This seemingly harmless prank becomes a more dangerous example of how the actions of just one person can put the health and safety of an entire community at risk.

In 1993, a more harrowing case unfolded in Gideon, Missouri where seven people lost their lives due to salmonella poisoning caused by bird droppings contaminating the water supply. While numerous facilities employ protective measures for safeguarding their water tanks, this doesn’t hold true for all. The effectiveness of water protection measures largely depends on the resources allocated to them.

While the EPA aims to maintain the cleanliness of drinking water, its success depends on its leadership and budget. This leaves us wondering: how truly secure is our most essential resource – water?

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