US Drinking Water Chlorination Turns 105!

From a list of notable events of 1908, one is likely to learn that:  Explorer Robert Peary set sail from New York Harbor on an epic journey to reach the North Pole;  a large meteorite blasted into Earth’s atmosphere over Siberia causing an explosion that leveled 800 square kilometers of forest; the first Model T Ford rolled off an assembly line in Detroit; and the classic baseball tune, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” was composed on a scrap of paper on a New York City commuter train.

Gate Houses and Chlorination Plant at Boonton Reservoir circa 1908 (The chlorination plant is the building at the center. Photo courtesy of Keith Wood, Watershed Superintendent, United Water Jersey City)

But lists of notable events of 1908 usually omit an even more important milestone:  The first continuous use of drinking water chlorination by a US municipality.  That municipality was Jersey City, New Jersey, a thriving industrial city on the west bank of the Hudson River and across Manhattan Island from the foot of East 24th Street where Peary’s North Pole expedition set sail up the East River.

The experiment that began in Jersey City changed American public health forever.  An innovative advisor to the local water company at the time, Dr. John L. Leal, was convinced that by adding low levels of “chloride of lime” (calcium hypochlorite) to the city’s raw water, bacterial contamination would be drastically reduced, lowering typhoid fever rates in the city. Jersey City’s water supply was raw river water that was being increasingly polluted by upstream communities; treatment consisted only of sediment settling in reservoirs, which is insufficient treatment for bacterial contamination. The experiment bore out Leal’s predictions and drinking water chlorination soon spread to other cities, to the great benefit of American public health.

Two lives in One

A recent Slate article, Why Are You Not Dead Yet? notes the expected human lifespan has doubled in the past 150 years.  Science and health editor Laura Helmuth observes, “We used to get one life. Now we get two.”  Helmuth invites readers to contemplate the life-saving treatments that have become routine for health conditions that would have killed millions before their discovery.  Examples include “the smallpox that didn’t kill you because it was eradicated by a massive global vaccine drive,” and “the cholera you never contracted because you drink filtered and chemically treated water.”  She notes “clean water may be the biggest lifesaver in history,” citing a study by Cutler and Miller (2005), who traced the disappearance of the “urban mortality penalty” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to drinking water filtration and chlorination.  Cutler and Miller conclude “clean water was responsible for nearly half the total mortality reduction in major cities, three quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two thirds of the child mortality reduction.”

On September 26, 2013, US drinking water chlorination turns 105 years old.  Figuratively speaking, the great experiment that was launched in Jersey City, less than 10 miles from Peary’s departure point on the East River, has impacted public health more forcefully than the historic Siberian meteorite.  It was a development that helped double our expected lifespans, affording us valuable time to meet our life goals.  What might you have died from without it?

The Water Quality and Health Council is an independent, multidisciplinary group sponsored by the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association.