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A Short History of My Relationship with Water

When I was a child growing up in California, one of the things that my parents, and especially my father, was very strict about was the fact that I was never to have any white refined sugar nor drink tap water. However, at Sunday school, I would sneak in a doughnut or two from the refreshments, but I always abided by the water rule. Although California supposedy has one of the most sanitary sources of water in the US, my father was rather distrustful of water sources, and we regularly had bottled spring water delivered, and a bottle of spring water in our bag at all times when going outside our homes. To this day, I admit, I cannot remember a time when I ever had tap water. In fact, the only instance I can remember having drank tap water was by accident, at a wine bar in Santa Monica, where the most vile tasting, foul smelling refrigerated water was given to me, and my body immediately cringed from the odd metallic taste.

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Popular choices for bottled water in California

Although friends in both Berkeley and New York City say their tap water is the best in the country, I have never drunk the tap water in New York either, whilst I had been an undergraduate there. I recall in the dormitories my sophomore year that a flatmate told me that sometimes when one turned on the faucet that the water would run brownish-red, but after awhile it turned clear and that it was drinkable. She was one of the most brilliant minds who had been the product of Choate, one of the best private prep schools in the nation, and I came from a modest public high school, but instinctively, I knew not to drink water that was initially "brownish-red" but would turn clear. No thanks. I had a supply of bottled water delivered to my room.

I discovered later that the water pipes in the United States are most often made of lead. My father's instincts had been right all along. In fact, what is surprising is that it is not illegal for water pipes in the United States to be made of lead. In the 1920s, Americans recognised that lead in water pipes was a source of massive lead poisoning in the 1800s, and rallied for the end of its use. However, the lead industries carried out a massive campaign in favour of the use of lead pipes:

However, all homes and buildings in the US built before 1980 all still have lead pipes and many US major cities have 100% lead piping, including New York City:

  • Some major U.S. cities still have 100 percent lead piping bringing water from the utilities to homes and businesses. The dissolved oxygen in the water combines with the metal at the surface (copper, zinc or lead) to form a metal oxide. This oxidation layer naturally develops through the decades to coat lead piping. When water conditions require it, water utilities also add lime or orthophosphates as a further barrier to prevent lead from getting into drinking water. When water chemistry is carefully controlled, it prevents dangerous levels of lead from entering the drinking water system from the pipes.
In England, lead piping for water is illegal and has been illegal since 1970 but lead piping still exists in older properties:

"However before 1970, many smaller water pipes were made from lead. Although lead pipes have not been permitted for this purpose for four decades, in older properties it remains possible that part, or all, of the underground service pipe connecting the water main in the street to your kitchen tap may be made from lead. It is also possible that some original lead plumbing remains within older properties especially if the kitchen has not been modernised."

Lead poisoning has rather obvious implications: "The health risks relate to the way lead can build up in the body. Those at particular risk are infants and children because lead can have an adverse impact on mental development. Lead may also be factor in behavioural problems."

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All homes in the United States built before 1980 still have lead plumbing and in some major cities, as NYC, 100% of the plumbing is lead-based. 

I wonder though if there is a correlation to lead poisoning and other common problems such as ADHD, autism, Parkinson's Disease, cancer, and other diseases that are prevalent in our society?

The single most important resource that has changed our lives was the access to clean water. Access to clean water was reserved for the upper classes in Victorian England, and even then, it wasn't very sanitary. Epidemics, plagues, illnesses such as cholera and the black plague were the direct result of people not having access to clean drinking water. People cannot go for longer than 2 days without water before they die, hence why it is important to drink clean water everyday, up to 7-10 cups. Water is what the human body needs to clean out toxins, renew cells and give us energy. Countries without access to clean water often have an early infant mortality rate.

Access to clean water is still one of the most important inventions of our society.

The first year I lived in London, I was staying at a graduate dormitory at the University of London in Paddington, and one day, I noticed all the faucets were churning out blue-greenish liquid- pure chlorine. When I told the management about it, they were quite adamant that the water was drinkable. Of course, no one in their right mind would ever drink blue-green water. Everyday, I would carry two large bottles of Evian from Sainsbury's to my room to use for tea. I would probably drink the entire contents of the water in a 24 hour period. One I kept in my room for tea, the other I carried with me to my classes at UCL. Later that year, I moved to Hoxton Square near Old Street, and I would similarly be seen, carrying two large bottles of water to my flat everyday. Some of my other classmates found it rather curious that I would buy my water and would protest: "the water here is perfectly fine", "you're wasting your money on water", "bottled water is a scam" etc. However, I was very adamant only to drink spring water with 0.00 levels of fluoride and chlorine.

More than 156 years before in the same area, in 1849, there was a bereft of water sources in London

"I am sure that I do not exaggerate the sanitary importance of water, when I affirm that its unrestricted supply is the first essential of decency, of comfort, and of health; that no civilization of the poorer classes can exist without it; and that any limitation to its use in the metropolis is a barrier, which must maintain thousands in a state of the most unwholesome filth and degradation. In the City of London the supply of water is but a fraction of what it should be. Thousands of the population have no supply of it to the houses where they dwell. For their possession of this first necessary of social life, such persons wholly depend on their power of attending at some fixed hour of the day, pail in hand, beside the nearest standcock; where, with their neighbours, they wait their turn—sometimes not without a struggle, during the tedious dribbling of a single small pipe." -Dr John Simon, City Medical Reports, 1849

In Victorian England, everyone had to wait their turn at a certain time of the day to fetch water from tap sources that were located around the city. The water was sometimes often mixed with organic matter (eg, feces) from sewage systems which lead to epidemics around the nation. Infant mortality rate was high, and the average life expectancy of children were age 5. Human waste was pushed into the Thames river, creating a stench all throughout London, and often the pipes that carried the water were made of lead, leading to massive lead poisoning of the population, perhaps symptomatic of "consumption", a mysterious disease of the era in which people would slowly die of the common flu, their bodies unable to fight the disease from possible lead poisoning. Many artists of the day died from consumption, from Katharine Mansfield to D.H. Lawrence. It is interesting to reflect in retrospect that all the plagues and epidemics of Victorian England were the direct result of not having access to clean water.

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Access to clean water irrevocably changed our lives. It was not really the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, vaccines or the medical industries that lowered the infant mortality rate, but rather, the access to clean water.

"In 1867 there was a serious outbreak of Asiatic cholera in London, and my father determined to have the water of the celebrated spring analysed. There were loud protests at this: - what, analyse the finest drinking-water in England! My father, however, persisted, and the result of the analysis was that our incomparable drinking - water was found to contain thirty per cent of organic matter. The analyst reported that fifteen per cent of the water must be pure sewage. My father had the spring sealed and bricked up at once, but it is marvel that we had not poisoned every single inhabitant of the Mayfair district years before."
-Frederick Spencer Hamilton, The Days Before Yesterday, 1930

However, despite the lack of clean water, two researchers wrote an interesting paper detailing the health of the people during the Victorian Era, and came up with the conclusion that the surviving Victorians were in fact, healthier than today's population due to their diet, which primarily consisted of fruits and vegetables, and their rate of high exercise (up to 50-70 hours of physical activity per week).

The treatment of water systems was first developed by a British doctor, Dr. John Snow, who used chlorine in an attempt to disinfect the Broad Street Pump water supply in London, which he identified as a cause of a cholera outbreak due to sewage contamination in 1854 and a German chemist, Mortiz Traube, who used chlorine to use on a plant scale basis for drinking water disinfection in Hamburg, Germany.

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Maidstone, England, the world's first city to utilise treatment of its water supply

Starting in 1900s, within 20-30 years, all epidemics of waterbourne diseases had been eliminated with drink water filtration and chlorination systems within Europe and the US.

Today, we are living in an era with superior water purification systems, such as reverse osmosis and deionizers that removes sediment, chlorine lead and fluoride from drinking supplies, in addition to an activated carbon absorption block filter that removes tastes and odors from drinking water. However, these purification systems still only remove about 94-96% of chlorine, lead and fluoride and I still find that the water I like best is the natural springs in Matterhorn, Switzerland, and bottled spring water such as Evian and 365 Whole Foods water.

We are even living in an era in which we can artificially create water:

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Saudi Arabia's $11 million artificial rainstorm project

If we think about it, water is one of the most important resources we have developed in the last 100 years.

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
-W.H. Auden