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Plumbing Engineer - Columns: July 2010: Designer's Guide

The ‘Poopy Paper’ receives national attention

By Timothy Allinson, P.E.,
Murray Co., Long Beach, Calif.

The Orange County Register, a local paper here in So Cal, recently ran a piece about William (Kelly) Hutchinson and his award-winning paper about plumbing. It seems that Kelly, 14, was given a class assignment to write about the innovation he believed had the greatest effect on history. His paper, reprinted below with permission from the author and his parents, was selected by the staff of his Shorecliffs Middle School in San Clemente to compete in the Orange County History Day Competition. Kelly’s paper won. He went on to the state competition and he won that, too. From there, he was off to the National History Day Competition in Washington, DC.

Kelly’s peers wrote about the Red Cross, nuclear bomb, and submarine, and Kelly himself initially wanted to write about the hand gun. But the more research he did, the more he realized the significance of plumbing and how its development through the 18th and 19th centuries curbed diseases.

His family and peers initially teased him about his selected topic and nicknamed it the “Poopy Paper.” But the teasing quickly stopped when he won the county and state competitions. Unfortunately, the competition in DC was fierce and broad reaching — from as far away as Germany and Taiwan, and Kelly did not win. But the fact that his plumbing paper made it so far is highly significant.

Reading about all this thrilled me, as I have long said that our industry needs an image upgrade in the minds of America’s youth, and Kelly has done just that. I contacted Kelly’s father and he sent me a copy of the paper. For brevity I have deleted the footnotes, which is unfortunate since it was his credible use of 30 sources that was the key to his success. If you are interested in seeing the paper in its original form with footnotes and references please let me know and I will email you a digital copy.

The Sanitation Revolution:
The Innovation of Sewers and Indoor Plumbing
in the 19th and 20th Centuries
William Hutchinson
Junior Division
Historical Paper

— When asked to think of great technological breakthroughs in history, many people mention such flashy inventions as television or computers. But if we narrow the focus to those innovations that have had the greatest impact on human welfare, and for the most people, few innovations can compare with public sewer systems and indoor plumbing. When the British Medical Journal polled experts in 1999 about what they considered the greatest medical advance since 1840, the majority picked public sanitation, ranking it above even antibiotics and anesthesia. Without a doubt, the widespread adoption of sanitation systems and indoor plumbing in the early 20th century was the most significant innovation in nearly doubling the average lifespan of Europeans and Americans, rapidly decreasing deadly diseases and creating a healthier, more comfortable living environment for the modern world.

The idea of building sewers to carry waste away from houses and cities is thousands of years old. Like many other grand innovations, the concept of indoor plumbing and sewers has been around since ancient times. It can be seen in ancient Roman and Babylonian civilizations, where there were primitive toilets and closed sewers for all to use. After 2,000 years, all of the mechanisms and devices used for controlling sewage had crumbled, and the world had no idea how to properly dispose of human feces. Over the years, many important scientists and inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci and William Byrd looked back on the Roman plumbing fixtures and pipelines and experimented with different forms of flushing water closets and sewage systems, but their ambitious plans never left the drawing board.

Before the invention of large-scale enclosed public sewer systems, large towns and cities were heavily polluted. During the Middle Ages, the common folk dumped their chamber pots of waste right into their backyards and streets. As a result, living in cities and towns meant constant, daily contact with urine and feces. Much of the time, the waste would flow into ground wells and the city water supplies. The rich and middle class emptied all of their waste into giant open cesspools, or cesspits, located in their basements. The stench was unimaginable. In 1186, in the palace of the Holy Roman Emperor in Efurt, Germany, the fumes from the palace cesspool caused the floorboards to gradually rot. Once, during a large gathering, the floors collapsed and hundreds of the emperor’s guests fell through into the cesspool and drowned in human excrement.

Life was not much better in the New World. English settlers used chamber pots and other crockery items to spread their waste into fields and rivers, or used primitive outhouses that consisted of wood benches hanging over holes in the ground. The waste was stored in underground chambers called cesspits, often located very close to houses. They did not know that as the populations of cities and towns grew, such casual methods of discharging refuse would lead to major pollution problems and various outbreaks of epidemics. “Here in Massachusetts, it is no uncommon thing to find (in rural homes) a well for water supply in close juxtaposition with collections of foul and disgusting matter in vaults of privies, cesspools, pig-styes or barnyards,” wrote Harvard-educated civil engineer Edward S. Philbrick in his 1881 book, American Sanitary Engineering, commenting on the horrible living conditions of the common people. “A city government erected within ear-shot of our oldest institution for learning still compels every householder to hoard in immediate vicinity of his dwelling, the vilest refuse of his family to ferment and decompose in the soil,” added Philbrick, one of the pioneers of American sanitary engineering.

Such poor sanitary precautions led to the spreading of deadly infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, malaria, and polio in both Europe and North America. As a result, the life expectancy of the average person gradually declined until it was reduced to less than 45 years of age in the late 19th century. A landmark case study in public health and sanitation history, called the Broad Street Well Epidemic, definitively established the link between sewage-contaminated drinking water and disease. In London, 1854, the deadly disease of cholera swept through the Soho neighborhood in London. Cholera is caused by bacteria that attack the intestines so violently that victims die within hours of excruciating dehydration from diarrhea. A British medical inspector named Dr. John Snow investigated the situation. Snow interviewed the families of the victims of the outbreak and learned that nearly all of the victims drank water from a well on Broad Street. “Within two-hundred-and-fifty yards of the spot where Cambridge Street joins Broad Street, there were upwards of five hundred fatal attacks of cholera in ten days,” wrote Snow, in the investigative report he wrote up at the time. Later, he discovered that the mother of a girl afflicted with cholera had dumped her daughter’s waste bucket into a leaking cesspool, only three feet from the Broad Street well — a major source of city drinking water. He believed that those drinking from the Broad Street well were inadvertently consuming microscopic bits of human waste (Dr. Snow didn’t know about bacteria yet) that was causing the cholera that would ultimately lead them to their deaths. Dr. Snow removed the pump handle from the Broad Street well, cutting off people’s access to its water, and new cholera cases, he believed, began to decline. Experts today debate whether removing the pump handle actually stopped the epidemic or whether it was already declining when Dr. Snow acted.
Investigating such epidemics as the cholera epidemic in London in 1854, scientists began seeing the connection between infectious disease and human waste. The contagion theory of disease (originally proposed by Agostino Bassi in 1844) was gaining ground in medicine. Edward Jenner, an early pioneer of bacterial anatomy, was one of the first to question the theory that diseases were spread through contaminated air (called “miasma”) instead of through contact with bacteria-filled substances. Gradually by the late 1800s, medical scientists and health inspectors came to believe that there had to be dramatic separation between human waste and drinking water.

In the late 19th century, two technological innovations occurred that dramatically improved the science of sanitation: the development of the modern toilet or water closet, and closed sewer systems, made up of large buried pipes, to carry waste away from cities. The toilet was the easy part. Functioning toilets had been around since the 16th century. A British nobleman named John Harrington built what he called a “privy of perfection” for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, in 1596. The fixture, imperfect but functioning, flushed waste away, but lacked venting to remove noxious fumes. Nearly two centuries later, around 1775, a watchmaker and innovator named Alexander Cummings constructed an effective flushing water closet based on Harrington’s toilet and other mediocre plumbing devices. In 1829, a 26-year-old architect named Isaiah Rogers took the principles of Cummings’ invention and developed his own toilet. Rogers’ innovation could carry the dirty water away and pump out its contents. But it also added vents through the roof to carry out sewer gas, an essential innovation. Rogers installed his indoor plumbing invention in the Tremont Hotel in Boston, which boasted the first hotel bathrooms in history. “Water was drawn from a metal storage tank set on top of the roof, the recently-invented steam pump raising the water on high,” according to an article in a technical journal. “A simple water carriage system removed the excretal water to the sewerage system. As with other individual buildings of the time, each had its own source of water and removal.”

By the 1890s, government leaders realized that the only way to ensure clean drinking water and sanitary conditions was through the creation of massive, city-wide sewer projects that ripped up entire cities. By then, engineers had learned how to channel dirty water through pipes and vent the air properly. They also learned how to filter, screen and eventually treat sewage before it was merely dumped into nearby lakes, rivers or the sea. “Disposal by dilution has retained greater favor in the United States than in England because of the larger bodies of water available for receiving the sewage,” wrote two civil engineers in 1916. “Dilution is now under fire, however, from some health officers and their engineers, who oppose the discharge of merely screened and settled sewage into rivers or lakes furnishing water for potable purposes.”

Few people could have imagined that indoor plumbing and sewer systems would have such a dramatic impact on both the quality of life and human longevity. “The effects of sanitary improvement have been already manifested to an extent greater than could have been anticipated,” noted American civil engineer George E. Waring, Jr., in his 1867 book, Draining for Profit and Draining for Health. When London installed closed sewers and abolished cesspools between 1848 and 1854, for example, the death rate overall went from 23 deaths per 1,000 people to 7 – a 70% decrease in just a decade. Similar dramatic results were seen in Paris and Berlin. “Half the problems of unsanitary water have been solved in a single generation,” said Nobel laureate and physician Dr. George Whipple in 1911, in the book Technology and Industrial Efficiency, speaking of North America. “Ten million people in cities now have a clean and safe water supply which has thereby increased their comfort and health.” Experts in the early 1900s estimated that public sanitation systems saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives by preventing the spread of infectious diseases. For example, according to Whipple, the death rate in 1860 from typhoid fever was 50 per 1,000 people. Thanks to clean drinking water, Whipple asserted, the death rate had been cut by more than in half, to about 20 per 1,000 people.

While public health researchers agree that sanitation innovations had a huge impact on reducing infectious diseases, some contend that improved nutrition and better housing for the working poor were equally, if not more, important, in promoting better health and greater longevity. “Although the sanitary movement of the nineteenth century and the development of bacteriology substantially lowered death rates from enteric diseases, other serious health problems still existed,” asserts medical historian Warren Winkelstein, Jr. “One was the appalling and ubiquitous rate of infant mortality.” Some experts believe that sanitation innovations are given too much credit for increasing health and quality of life. Carl Schramm, author of Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, argues that it was not sanitation innovations alone but also the availability of increased quantities of nutritional food that led people to a healthier, longer life. “The falling costs and increasing quality of food, clothing, and shelter made Americans healthier and more resistant to diseases,” concludes Schramm. However, as important as improved early child care, antibiotics, and better food and housing were in improving living conditions, none of these advances alone could have made much of a difference if epidemic disease had not been suppressed through sanitation innovations.

“In the Middle Ages, the average human life expectancy did not reach into the teen years, not only because of the extremely high mortality that heavily skewed the data, but also because Europeans, and much of the world during this time, lived in an unhealthy milieu of filth, poor hygiene and nearly non-existent sanitation,” notes medical historian Miguel A. Fario, Jr., M.D., adding that “hygiene and sanitation have resulted in unprecedented longevity.” Due to significant innovations in public sanitation and similar advances in medical hygiene, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the average life expectancy for Americans has increased by about 30 years since 1900.

There is no doubt that many technological and medical advances in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had major impacts on improving human health. However, the proof that public sewers and indoor plumbing played a critical role in promoting human survival can be seen today in recent events. For example, the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti demonstrated what life would be like without modern sewage systems and clean drinking water. The major problem facing rescue workers in Haiti was the destruction of the island nation’s sewer system, the contamination of drinking water and the subsequent spread of bacteria and disease. Matters are even worse in India, where more than 638 million people lack basic sanitary necessities such as clean water and good hygiene. “We go to the toilet on the street,” a young Indian resident from the city Kolkata told the Los Angeles Times in March 2010. “I know other people have to walk in it, but you don't have much choice if you have to go.” According to a 2010 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization, 39% of the world population, more than 2.6 billion people, still live without basic sanitation facilities and an estimated 1.5 million children under age five die each year from diseases linked to unsanitary living conditions.

The problem of where and how we dispose of human waste remains a controversial issue even in the United States. In March 2010, Orange and Los Angeles Counties filed a lawsuit over the recent decision by Kern County voters no longer to accept truckloads of sewage sludge from these southern counties being spread on their fields. According to a report in the Orange County Register, the city of Los Angeles alone dumps over 450,000 tons of “biosolids” in Kern County’s fields and meadows annually. “The way folks in Kern County look at it, the city slickers are using their county as a giant toilet — and they don’t like it one bit,” wrote Gordon Dillow in the Orange County Register. The problem of getting rid of sewage sludge safely is growing nationwide and will remain an issue well into the future. Scientists are currently researching innovative new ways to recycle biosolids or even utilize them in new green energy production.

In the end, modern sanitation systems may not be perfect, as the controversy over sludge disposal shows, but this innovation has succeeded in nearly doubling the life expectancy of the average person, creating a better, easier environment to live in, and preventing the spreading of many contagious diseases. It is hard to even comprehend, at times, how far scientists and innovators have come and how much they have accomplished. The protection and purification of drinking water, and the elimination of disease-carrying human waste, have improved the quality of life for billions of people worldwide. Though at times, we may take certain things for granted, it is our duty as Americans to truly appreciate the innovations in sanitation that have dramatically changed the course of our world. Our next goal should be to bring these life-saving sanitation innovations to the suffering people in poor countries worldwide.

Timothy Allinson is a senior professional engineer with Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a bsme from Tufts University and an mba from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a leed accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of aspe, both the New York and Orange County Chapters.

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