PSC University 2017: Lives on the Line – The History of Chlorination and Disinfection of Water Supplies
Daniel Albus, PE, team leader in PSC’s environmental sector, acquainted the attendees of PSCU 2017 with how chlorination revolutionized public health with his presentation, Lives on the Line: The History of Chlorination and Disinfection of Water Supplies. Building on the work of Michael J. McGuire’s book, “The Chlorine Revolution,” Albus spoke about life before chlorine treatment was introduced and the mass terror water-borne diseases caused.
“Just 100 years ago, water borne illness was a pervasive threat to the public health,” Daniel said.
According to his presentation, typhoid fever had a 25 percent mortality rate. Cholera had a 50 percent mortality rate and caused the deadly 1854 epidemic in London. All forms of Dysentery, spread through infected human feces in drinking water, had severe symptoms, and there were virtually no treatments. No one knew what caused these illnesses, let alone how to cure or prevent them, so where illness would strike next was unpredictable.
Following the development of the first microscopes, people began to realize how much of the illness-causing bacteria was in their water. They attempted to eliminate the threat by using two key methods that Daniel discussed in his presentation.
Slow sand filters, Daniel said, were some of the earliest attempts at treating water for human consumption. They allowed water to trickle through sand media beds, removing pathogenic organisms and other contaminants. Their immense size, however, made them difficult and expensive to maintain, and they were not effective at preventing disease.
Another common method was mechanical treatment. This method first used a chemical process to separate suspended solids then purified the water through a multi-media filter bed. The system was capable of moving large volumes per square foot of filter area, but it also couldn’t stop water-borne illnesses.
George Fuller, a key engineer whom Daniel introduced in his presentation, was part of the team who designed the multi-media beds used in mechanical treatment. The filter bed removed 95 to 98 percent of bacteria, but disease persevered. From this disillusion rose Dr. John Leal, a public health officer in Patterson, NJ, and another key character in Daniel’s presentation. Leal partnered with Fuller to envision a water filtration method that would effectively treat contaminated water — chlorination.
Daniel explained that Dr. Leal, spurned by his father’s death at the hands of amoebic dysentery during the Civil War, became a sanitary advisor in 1902 for the Jersey City Water Supply Company. Leal was a physician, like his father, and understood how effective chlorine was at killing bacteria. When his company built a municipal water system that delivered substandard water, it received its first legal challenge from Jersey City, NJ. The courts gave them 90 days to either construct sewers or present a new idea to provide citizens with “pure and wholesome” water. To meet that challenge, Leal employed the help of Fuller.
With a strong resume of experience and studies, Daniel said that Fuller’s name was well respected. He had pilot tested slow sand filtration in the U.S. and designed a mechanical plant in Little Falls, NJ. He had also studied under Allen Hazel, a noted water sanitation and sewage expert. Fuller was just the man Leal needed to effect change within the court’s tight, 90-day deadline.
Together, Fuller and Leal envisioned and constructed a water chlorination system. With little time and money and litigation guaranteed, they pushed their idea forward, against public opinion, because they were confident the plant’s use of chlorination would prove effective and safe. In fact, they began delivering chlorinated water to the unknowing people well before the court date.
Daniel’s presentation asserted that despite the chemophobia surrounding chemically treated water, the success of this new system could not be contested. During the second trial, which would determine if the changes the company had made resulted in the production of “pure and wholesome” water, Leal revealed that they had already been successfully chlorinating Jersey City’s water. This announcement came as a shock to the chemophobic people who had been unaware of the change they had so feared. The litigation proved that traditional sewer constructions could not stop contamination and that chlorine use was effective, safe and reliable.
“They were not trying to start a revolution, but they did by making a simple improvement to make life better. Innovation can happen every day.”