‘The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives’

Posted on October 27, 2015

This is the title of a book written by Dr. Michael J. McGuire and edited by the American Water Works Association in 2013. It describes the fascinating history of chlorine use for drinking water disinfection in the United States of America. The chlorination of drinking water is accepted worldwide as an effective way to kill deadly pathogens; but at the turn of the 20th Century, adding chlorine to water was considered revolutionary, even heretical by science, until a courageous physician proved that it could be done.

Perhaps no other advancement of public health has been as significant. Yet, few know the intriguing story of how a (retrospectively) simple idea, disinfecting public water systems with chlorine could, in just 100 years, save more lives than any other single health development in human history.

Dr. McGuire’s book also tells how, during the American Civil War which started in 1861, waterborne disease killed more soldiers than bullets! How in 1915 child death rate in the US was at 10 per cent and up to 30% in some cities due to contaminated milk; and how life expectancy in the US was 47 years in 1900 but by 1984 this rose to 70 years all due to chlorination!

At the turn of the 20th century, most scientists and doctors called the addition of chloride of lime, a “poisonous chemical”, to public water supplies not only a “preposterous idea” but also an “illegal act”, until a courageous physician, Dr. John L. Leal, working with George W. Fuller, the era’s greatest sanitary engineer, proved that it could be done safely and effectively on a large scale.

This is the first book to tell the incredible true story of the first use of chlorine to disinfect a city water supply, in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1908. This important book also corrects misinformation long-held in the historical record about who was responsible for this momentous event, giving overdue recognition to the unsung hero of the story, an unflagging champion of public health, Dr. John L. Leal.

Dr. McGuire gave an interesting, well received, presentation of this important book at the WCC New Delhi meeting of last October 15th.

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