Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 16, 2016

Safe Drinking Water: Its Benefits Should Not Be Overlooked

Having spoken up for anesthesia and sterile surgical techniques, I now want to put in a word for clean drinking water.  My guess (and it is just a guess) is that clean drinking water has saved at least an order of magnitude more lives than proper surgery has.  The basic concept is simple:  water should be obtained from a source that is not polluted with feces and other impurities.  Sewage should be treated before it is discharged into waterways.  (Actually, this second step is not that important as long as the first step is strictly observed, and assuming people don't, like, swim or fish in the polluted water.  Many cities, including New York, regularly discharge untreated sewage into the environment, and while I'm sure this isn't totally harmless, it's also not a public health crisis.)

People have always sought good drinking water, and the Romans famously built huge public works to supply it.  But it wasn't until the mid-19th century that people recognized the scientific principles involved, and then rich societies started to spend significant amounts of money ensuring that tapwater is safe to drink.  I think the egalitarian aspects of this should not be overlooked:  rich people can get clean water anywhere in the world, but in the U.S. really excellent drinking water is available at extremely affordable rates to everyone in New York City.  (Other cities don't have quite the excellent water that New York enjoys, but almost all cities in the United States have tolerably clean and pure tapwater.)  As a result, deaths from diarrhea are far rarer in the United States than they are in developing countries.  Partly this is because of our modern medical system, but the truth is that most cases of diarrhea simply don't arise in the first place because of our excellent, publicly available drinking water.

I'm aware that there are big exceptions to what I've said.  Most notably, Flint, Michigan provided terrible drinking water to its residents, in what has to be regarded as a shocking failure of public policy.  There have also been reports of elevated lead levels in drinking fountains in Newark public schools.  To be honest, here is what I would do if I had to drink out of a drinking fountain (anywhere, not just in Newark):  I would run the fountain for at least 30 seconds before drinking the water.  That way, the water that was sitting in the drinking fountain should be flushed out.  (I don't know if 30 seconds is long enough, but it's better than nothing, and there are limits on what you can do.  I wouldn't bother if the drinking fountain is used frequently enough, as in a busy airport terminal, because in essence it has already been flushed out.)

Anyway we should be angry about the failure in Flint (which by the way was bound up with inequality and poverty, as with most policy failures in the U.S.), but what happened there was noteworthy precisely because it is so rare.  Almost always, almost everywhere (in the U.S.) tapwater is by far the healthiest thing you can be drinking (except maybe black coffee).

All right, so you knew this was coming.  What man stands at the intersection of these two massive advances for humankind?  That would be John Snow, who developed techniques for safely administering anesthesia and who demonstrated the connection between unsafe water and the SoHo cholera epidemic in 1854.  A weird man, for many years he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian.  After demonstrating that cholera was waterborne, he drank boiled water for the rest of his life.  (I would have too.)  Sadly, he died at the age of 45, but his legacy lives on.  He is rightly remembered as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.


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