Water is essential to life. That is why most human settlements always began near a water source. Conflicts over control of such sources started in ancient times and continue today, as evident in the Middle East, for example. Israel's National Water Carrier project was the target of attacks by neighboring Arab countries and an escalating factor in the tensions that led to the 1967 Six-Day War.
Unfortunately, the importance of clean water was not understood until the second half of the nineteenth century, a relatively recent development. In ancient Rome, sewers carried human waste into the Tiber River. By 312 B.C.E. the river was so polluted the Romans had to construct aqueducts to obtain clean drinking water. The pollution of water with raw sewage was the catalyst for many typhoid and cholera outbreaks throughout the centuries, in many parts of the world. Even today, in numerous developing nations,
The Exxon Valdez leaking oil; the slick is visible along side of ship. (Courtesy of Richard Stapleton. Reproduced by permission.)
cholera still kills tens of thousands each year because clean drinking water is not available, or accessible, to everyone.
The connection between water pollution with human waste and the outbreaks of diseases such as cholera was not understood until the 1850s. In 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak gripped the Soho part of London, centering around the Broad Street well. A physician named John Snow, in what has become one of medicine's most celebrated sleuthing cases, deduced that the cause of the outbreak was contamination of the Broad Street well. Since no one believed him, Snow suggested taking off the well pump's handle. Once the well was not in use, the epidemic ended. The cause was later traced to washing a sick baby's dirty diapers in a cesspool that seeped into the well. Unfortunately for Soho, calls for eliminating cesspools from the vicinity of wells in that area went unheeded for quite some time.
In the United States, human waste was carried in American rivers for centuries. Not only were freshwater sources used as sewage dumps in most of the Western world (certain Asian countries used human waste as fertilizer, instead), but industrial waste was also discarded in rivers and streams. Leather tanning waste and butchering waste were frequent early polluters of water sources too. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, water pollution became a major crisis. Factories found water sources, especially rivers, a convenient means of waste disposal. The trend continued well into the twentieth century. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire several times since the 1930s, a result of oil slicks and flammable industrial waste dumped in it. Coupled with widespread and human waste contamination of rivers, a fire on the Cuyahoga in 1969, led to the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA prohibits pollutants' discharge into navigable waterways, and there is no doubt it has improved water quality in the United States considerably. However, there is no realistic standard as to how clean is clean, and the act has been criticized for leading to wasted money without effective controls and monitoring systems. There is also the difficulty inherent in controlling nonpoint source pollution—pollution from diffuse or not-easily-identifiable sources—a harder task than controlling point source pollution, which can be predicted, controlled, and monitored.
The post-World War II era saw an explosion of industries and technological advances in developed nations, ranging from engineering to medicine. Many advances that occurred during wartime proved invaluable in peacetime. Antibiotics saved millions of lives, as did pesticides such as DDT, a compound that greatly reduced the incidence of typhus during the war, and later helped control malaria worldwide. But many industrial waste byproducts found their way into the water, either through direct dumping by companies, or through leaching into groundwater from dumping sites. These by-products caused massive wildlife dieoffs, and are also blamed for elevated cancer rates, birth defects, and a lower IQ in people who subsisted on water polluted by heavy industries.
In 1962 scientist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, an explosive exposé condemning the use of long-lasting pesticides in general, and DDT in particular. Her carefully researched material and its masterful presentation were the driving forces behind the emerging environmental movement in the United States and around the world. The book focused attention on the problem of pollution in the environment. It is believed that many pollution control laws, including CWA, were influenced by Silent Spring. The use of DDT in many nations was subsequently banned. Globally, DDT is currently approved only for control of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, while safer alternatives are being researched.
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