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Causes And Dangers Of Polluted Water

Category: OUR DRINK
Source: A Handbook Of Health

Wells--the Oldest Method of Supplying Water. It was long ago
discovered that, by digging pits or holes in the ground, the rain water,
in its steady flow toward the streams and lakes, could be caught or
trapped, and that if the pit were made deep enough, a sufficient amount
would accumulate during the winter or spring to last well on into the
summer, unless the season were unusually dry. These pits, or water
traps, are our familiar wells, from which most of our water supply,
except in the large cities, is still taken. These wells were naturally
dug, or sunk, as near as might be to the house, so as to shorten the
distance that the water had to be carried; and from this arose their
chief and greatest source of danger.

The Danger to Wells from Household Waste. Every house has, like our
bodies, a certain amount of waste, which must be got rid of. Some of
this material can, of course, be fed to pigs and chickens, and in that
way disposed of. But the simplest and easiest thing to do with the
watery parts of the household waste is to take them to the back door and
throw them out on the ground, while table-scraps and other garbage are
thrown into the long grass, or bushes--a method which is still,
unfortunately, pursued in a great many houses in the country and the
suburbs of towns. If the area over which they are thrown is large
enough, and particularly if the soil is porous and well covered with
vegetation, nature's filter-bed--the soil, the bacteria, and the roots
of the grass and other plants combined--will purify a surprising amount
of waste; but there is always the danger, particularly in the wet
weather of spring and of late fall, that the soil will become charged
with more of these waste matters than the bacteria can destroy, and that
these waste poisons will be washed down in the rain water right into the
pit, or trap, which has been dug for it--the well.

The Danger from Outbuildings. This danger is further increased by the
fact that for the same reason--the vital need of plenty of water for all
living creatures--the hen coop, the pig pen, the cow stable, and the
horse barn are all likely to be built clustering around this same well.
If the fertilizer from these places is, as it should be in all
intelligent farming, protected from the rain so as not to have all its
strength washed out of it, and removed and spread on the soil at
frequent intervals, the well may even yet escape contamination; but the
chances are very strongly against it. If you will figure out that a well
drains the surface soil in every direction for a distance from ten to
thirty times its own depth, and that the average well is about
twenty-five feet deep, you can readily see what a risk of contaminating
the well is caused by every barn, outhouse, or pen within from sixty to
a hundred and fifty yards from its mouth.

Every well from which drinking water is taken should be at least fifty,
and better, a hundred and fifty, yards away from any stable, outhouse,
or barn; or set well up-hill from it, so that all drainage runs away
from its basin. This, of course, is possible only in the country, or in
villages or small towns, where houses have plenty of ground about them.
Consequently, the health laws of most cities and states forbid the use
of shallow wells for drinking purposes in cities of over 10,000

Causes which Produce Pure Well Water. Occasionally a well will be
driven through a layer of rock or hard water-proof clay, before the
water-bearing layer of soil, or sand, is struck, so that its water will
be drawn, not from the rain that falls on the surface of the ground
immediately about it, but from that which has fallen somewhere at a
considerable distance and filtered down through the soil. This water, on
account of the many, many layers of soil through which it has filtered,
and the long distance it has come, is usually fairly pure, so far as
animal or vegetable impurities are concerned, though it is apt to have
become too strong in certain salty and mineral substances, which give it
a taste of salt, or iron, or sulphur. If, however, it is free from these
salty substances, it makes a very pure and wholesome drinking water; and
if the upper part of the well shaft be lined with bricks and cement, so
that the surface water cannot leak into it, it may be used with safety
for drinking purposes even in the heart of a city.

The Greatest Single Danger to Well Water. The greatest single danger
to the purity of well water is the privy vault. This is doubly
dangerous, first, because it is dug below the level at which the
bacteria in the soil are most abundant and active, so that they cannot
attack and break up its contents; and the impurities, therefore, are
gradually washed down by the rain water into the soil, unchanged, and
seep directly into the well. The other reason is that its contents may
contain the germs of serious diseases, particularly typhoid fever and
other bowel troubles. These germs and their poisons would usually be
destroyed by the bacteria of the soil, if not poured out in too large
quantities; but in the privy vault they escape their attack, and so are
carried on with the slow leakage of water into the well; then those who
use that water are very liable to have typhoid fever and other serious

Early Methods of Prevention. On account of these filth-dangers, it
began, a century or so ago, to be the custom in cleanly and thoughtful
households to provide, first, ditches, and then, lines of pipes, made
out of hollow wood or baked clay, and later of iron, called drains,
through which all the watery parts of household wastes could be carried
away and poured out at some distance from the house. Then toilets, or
flush-closets, were built, and this kind of waste was carried completely
away from the house, and beyond danger of contaminating the wells.

How Streams were Contaminated. For a time this seemed to end the
danger, as the waste was soaked up by the soil, and eaten by its hungry
bacteria and drunk up again by the roots of plants. But when ten or a
dozen houses began to combine and run their drain-pipes together into a
large drain called a sewer, then this could not open upon the surface of
the ground, but had to be run into some stream, or brook, in order to be
carried away. As cities and towns, which had been obliged to give up
their wells, were beginning to collect the water from these same brooks
and streams in reservoirs and deliver it in pipes to all their houses,
it can be easily seen that we had simply exchanged one danger for

The Loss of Life from Typhoid Fever. For a time, indeed, it looked as
if the new danger were the greater of the two, because, when the typhoid
germs were washed into a well, they poisoned or infected only one, or at
most two or three, families who used the water from that well. But when
they were carried into a stream which was dammed to form a reservoir to
supply a town with water, then the whole population of the town might
become infected. A great many epidemics of typhoid fever occurred in
just this way, before people realized how great this danger was. Simply
from the pouring of the wastes from one or two typhoid fever cases into
the streams leading into the water reservoir used by a town, five
hundred, a thousand, or even three or four thousand cases of typhoid
have developed within a few weeks, with from one hundred to five hundred

In fact, even to-day, when these dangers are better understood, and
while most of our big cities are getting fairly clear of typhoid, so
ignorant and careless are the smaller towns, villages, and private
houses all over the United States, that over 35,000 deaths[14] from
typhoid fever occur every year in a country which prides itself upon its
cleanliness and its intelligence. This means, too, that there are at
least half a million people sick of the disease, and in bed or utterly
prevented from working, for from five to fifteen weeks each. All of
which frightful loss of human life and human labor, to say nothing of
the grief, bereavement, and anxiety of the two million or more families
and relatives of these typhoid victims, is due to eating dirt and
drinking filth. Dirt is surely the most expensive thing there is,
instead of the cheapest.

Next: Methods Of Obtaining Pure Water

Previous: Where Our Drinking Water Comes From

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