Although friends in both Berkeley and New York City say their tap water is the best in the country, I have never drunk the tap water in New York either, whilst I had been an undergraduate there. I recall in the dormitories my sophomore year that a flatmate told me that sometimes when one turned on the faucet that the water would run brownish-red, but after awhile it turned clear and that it was drinkable. She was one of the most brilliant minds who had been the product of Choate, one of the best private prep schools in the nation, and I came from a modest public high school, but instinctively, I knew not to drink water that was initially "brownish-red" but would turn clear. No thanks. I had a supply of bottled water delivered to my room.
I discovered later that the water pipes in the United States are most often made of lead. My father's instincts had been right all along. In fact, what is surprising is that it is not illegal for water pipes in the United States to be made of lead. In the 1920s, Americans recognised that lead in water pipes was a source of massive lead poisoning in the 1800s, and rallied for the end of its use. However, the lead industries carried out a massive campaign in favour of the use of lead pipes:
Lead pipes for carrying drinking water were well recognized as a cause of lead poisoning by the late 1800s in the United States. By the 1920s, many cities and towns were prohibiting or restricting their use. To combat this trend, the lead industry carried out a prolonged and effective campaign to promote the use of lead pipes. Led by the Lead Industries Association (LIA), representatives were sent to speak with plumbers’ organizations, local water authorities, architects, and federal officials. The LIA also published numerous articles and books that extolled the advantages of lead over other materials and gave practical advice on the installation and repair of lead pipes. The LIA’s activities over several decades therefore contributed to the present-day public health and economic cost of lead water pipes.
However, all homes and buildings in the US built before 1980 all still have lead pipes and many US major cities have 100% lead piping, including New York City:
Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes.
- Some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping bringing water from the utilities to homes and businesses. The dissolved oxygen in the water combines with the metal at the surface (copper, zinc or lead) to form a metal oxide. This oxidation layer naturally develops through the decades to coat lead piping. When water conditions require it, water utilities also add lime or orthophosphates as a further barrier to prevent lead from getting into drinking water. When water chemistry is carefully controlled, it prevents dangerous levels of lead from entering the drinking water system from the pipes.
In England, lead piping for water is illegal and has been illegal since 1970 but lead piping still exists in older properties:
"However before 1970, many smaller water pipes were made from lead. Although lead pipes have not been permitted for this purpose for four decades, in older properties it remains possible that part, or all, of the underground service pipe connecting the water main in the street to your kitchen tap may be made from lead. It is also possible that some original lead plumbing remains within older properties especially if the kitchen has not been modernised."
Lead poisoning has rather obvious implications: "The health risks relate to the way lead can build up in the body. Those at particular risk are infants and children because lead can have an adverse impact on mental development. Lead may also be factor in behavioural problems."
The single most important resource that has changed our lives was the access to clean water. Access to clean water was reserved for the upper classes in Victorian England, and even then, it wasn't very sanitary. Epidemics, plagues, illnesses such as cholera and the black plague were the direct result of people not having access to clean drinking water. People cannot go for longer than 2 days without water before they die, hence why it is important to drink clean water everyday, up to 7-10 cups. Water is what the human body needs to clean out toxins, renew cells and give us energy. Countries without access to clean water often have an early infant mortality rate.
Access to clean water is still one of the most important inventions of our society.
The first year I lived in London, I was staying at a graduate dormitory at the University of London in Paddington, and one day, I noticed all the faucets were churning out blue-greenish liquid- pure chlorine. When I told the management about it, they were quite adamant that the water was drinkable. Of course, no one in their right mind would ever drink blue-green water. Everyday, I would carry two large bottles of Evian from Sainsbury's to my room to use for tea. I would probably drink the entire contents of the water in a 24 hour period. One I kept in my room for tea, the other I carried with me to my classes at UCL. Later that year, I moved to Hoxton Square near Old Street, and I would similarly be seen, carrying two large bottles of water to my flat everyday. Some of my other classmates found it rather curious that I would buy my water and would protest: "the water here is perfectly fine", "you're wasting your money on water", "bottled water is a scam" etc. However, I was very adamant only to drink spring water with 0.00 levels of fluoride and chlorine.
More than 156 years before in the same area, in 1849, there was a bereft of water sources in London:
In Victorian England, everyone had to wait their turn at a certain time of the day to fetch water from tap sources that were located around the city. The water was sometimes often mixed with organic matter (eg, feces) from sewage systems which lead to epidemics around the nation. Infant mortality rate was high, and the average life expectancy of children were age 5. Human waste was pushed into the Thames river, creating a stench all throughout London, and often the pipes that carried the water were made of lead, leading to massive lead poisoning of the population, perhaps symptomatic of "consumption", a mysterious disease of the era in which people would slowly die of the common flu, their bodies unable to fight the disease from possible lead poisoning. Many artists of the day died from consumption, from Katharine Mansfield to D.H. Lawrence. It is interesting to reflect in retrospect that all the plagues and epidemics of Victorian England were the direct result of not having access to clean water.
Access to clean water irrevocably changed our lives. It was not really the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, vaccines or the medical industries that lowered the infant mortality rate, but rather, the access to clean water.
-Frederick Spencer Hamilton, The Days Before Yesterday, 1930
However, despite the lack of clean water, two researchers wrote an interesting paper detailing the health of the people during the Victorian Era, and came up with the conclusion that the surviving Victorians were in fact, healthier than today's population due to their diet, which primarily consisted of fruits and vegetables, and their rate of high exercise (up to 50-70 hours of physical activity per week).
The treatment of water systems was first developed by a British doctor, Dr. John Snow, who used chlorine in an attempt to disinfect the Broad Street Pump water supply in London, which he identified as a cause of a cholera outbreak due to sewage contamination in 1854 and a German chemist, Mortiz Traube, who used chlorine to use on a plant scale basis for drinking water disinfection in Hamburg, Germany.
In 1897, Maidstone, England was the first in the world to have its entire water supply treated with chlorine.
Starting in 1900s, within 20-30 years, all epidemics of waterbourne diseases had been eliminated with drink water filtration and chlorination systems within Europe and the US.
Today, we are living in an era with superior water purification systems, such as reverse osmosis and deionizers that removes sediment, chlorine lead and fluoride from drinking supplies, in addition to an activated carbon absorption block filter that removes tastes and odors from drinking water. However, these purification systems still only remove about 94-96% of chlorine, lead and fluoride and I still find that the water I like best is the natural springs in Matterhorn, Switzerland, and bottled spring water such as Evian and 365 Whole Foods water.
We are even living in an era in which we can artificially create water:
Scientists working for the Abu Dhabi government created more than 50 rainstorms in Al Ain in July and August of 2010, during the peak of the emirate’s summer months.
By Sierra Choi