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Causes And Dangers Of Polluted Water

Categories: OUR DRINK
Sources: 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
ur 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.