Cleaner water must be made a priority worldwide

Clean water is essential to public health, but it does not always have a high priority for cities in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

That topic is the subject of "The Blue Death — Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink," a detailed look at the terrible health problems that have been caused around the world by contaminated drinking water.

The author of the book, Dr. Robert Morris, is a Seattle environmental epidemiologist and an international expert on drinking water and public health.

In a prologue to the book he wrote, "Evidence suggests that drinking water may sicken millions of people every year in the United States… For much of the developing world, waterborne disease is no secret. Like a tsunami in slow motion, unsafe drinking water is killing constantly; almost 40,000 people will die this week alone."

The book covers a wide range of problems, including the prolonged international controversy about the causes of cholera, which has caused millions of deaths around the world. (The title — "The Blue Death" — came about because the skin of cholera victims sometimes has a blue tinge).


Morris describes the prolonged effort by Dr. John Snow of England in the 19th century to prove that cholera was caused by organic matter in drinking water. Snow’s research was rejected by the public officials who were in charge of London’s water supply, who said cholera was caused by unclean air. Years passed before other scientists accepted Snow’s findings.

Eventually, London improved its system for purifying the city’s water, and the cholera epidemics ended.

Morris stresses repeatedly that many cities have water quality problems because their drinking water comes from the same streams or rivers in which they deposit their sewage. He writes that many city water plant operators are convinced that the chemicals they use can purify the water and they are reluctant to accept the advice of outside experts.

Another major problem developed in Milwaukee in the spring of 1993. People in the city began to experience an outbreak of severe diarrhea and the cause could not be found. Water plant specialists found that there had been increased turbidity in the water, but they were unable to determine the cause.

More and more tests were conducted and, in a relatively short time, more than 400,000 people had become ill, 4,000 had been hospitalized and more than 100 had died.

Eventually scientists determined that the water was infested with cryptosporidium, a parasite, which was found in the bodies of all those who had become ill. It was the worst outbreak of waterborne disease in the history of the U.S.

Milwaukee’s experience made it clear that, while engineers and managers could operate city water plants, they also needed scientists and epidemiologists to protect the public from little-known contaminants that are a serious threat to public health.

According to Morris, most cities have underground water pipes that have been in use for 50 to 100 years and are not capable of providing clean water to homes and businesses. He adds that "The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that maintaining our water distribution systems in the United States will cost billions of dollars over the next 20 years as we replace about 1 million miles of pipes.


"After that it gets expensive. During the 20 years after 2026, we will need to replace 6 million miles of pipe, at costs in excess of half a trillion dollars."

He adds that using point-of-use (POU) filters for drinking water in each home would add extra protection and would yield water that is superior to tap water. In his view, "every waterborne outbreak described in this book could have been prevented by use of POU water filters."

In brief, "The Blue Death" is a profoundly pessimistic view of the state of water systems in the U.S. and around the world. It offers persuasive arguments for a wholesale revision of the way we deal with that issue.

Rochester residents are fortunate they do not need to be concerned about these problems. One reason is that Rochester Public Utilities obtains its water supply from wells that are deep underground. The other reason is that RPU officials favor sound environmental policies — as indicated by their current $37 million program to reduce pollutants emitted from the smokestacks at the RPU power plant.

Bill Boyne is a retired publisher and editor of the Post-Bulletin. His column appears Wednesdays.

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