Source: The Seattle Times, September 20, 2007.


The Blue Death

Robert D. Morris, Harper Collins, New York, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-06-073089-5

Physician details waterborne dangers

By Bob Simmons, Special to The Seattle Times

When physician John Snow identified water as the most likely source of cholera, the horrific "blue death" of the 1800s, he was shut out of the British scientific establishment and attacked by those in the business of distributing polluted water.

Physician Robert D. Morris' new book — "The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink" (HarperCollins, 320 pp., $24.95) — relates the struggle by Snow, Germany's Robert Koch and other early heroes of science to alert a disbelieving public to waterborne disasters. It's a provocative history of the diseases that hide in drinking water, and as current as the glassful with which you washed down your vitamin pills this morning.

Snow's truth prevailed, finally, but waterborne health hazards persist. So does the reluctance of those in the water business to confront uncertainties about the safety of drinking water. Modern outbreaks examined in the book include the 1993 epidemic of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee, where 400,000 got sick and more than 100 died; and the horrors of Goma, Zaire, where 60,000 died from cholera in a single month in 1994. He discusses the spread of waterborne infections in post-Katrina New Orleans and compares the water treatment systems there to those still used in the rest of the country. Disease outbreaks in Calcutta, India, Chicago and Jersey City, New Jersey, are examined, all traced to invisible contamination in water-distribution networks.

Morris is a physician with a doctorate in environmental engineering — an extraordinary set of credentials for warning the world against the hazards lurking in our drinking water. He wrote much of the book as a visiting scholar at the University of Washington's School of Epidemiology [Department of Epidemiology in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine].

He mentions Seattle as one of a handful of major cities around the U.S. that distribute unfiltered water and rely on source protection as their main defense against contaminants, although, Morris says, "... the protection is imperfect." He acknowledged by e-mail that "Seattle has terrific source water compared to any other city," especially in the relatively pristine and well-protected Cedar River watershed (Seattle's not-so-pristine Tolt River water goes through a filtration plant.)

Of greater concern in older cities, Morris says, are the miles of aging water pipes, with "leaks that can be an open door to microbes." A spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities says his department's program of prioritizing water-pipe replacement is the best in the country, and that water specialists from other cities come here to learn the system.

Morris makes a strong case for public utilities to install and maintain point-of-use water filters in homes and businesses. These are pricey, but cheaper and more sensible than the current craze for bottled water. Morris estimates bottled water is a thousand times more expensive than tap water, with no guarantee that it's any safer. It's less regulated than tap water and much of it, he says, is "nothing more than tap water in an expensive bottle."

In a section on terrorism, Morris describes a conversation with a water-utility expert who revealed how "a small group of men with bags of manure" could launch an attack with the potential to kill hundreds of people. He does not reveal the technique, "On the off chance that diabolical minds have not figured out the details." Nor does he reveal who explained it to him. It led this reader to wonder why, having left the essential information out, he left the anecdote in.

Morris takes considerable literary license in portraying the life of the courageous Snow and his 19th-century supporters. He describes movements, thoughts and actions with omniscience you might expect in a novel and may find distracting in a nonfiction work on the science of safe drinking water. Still, his stories are important, and the heroes deserve the wider acclaim he seeks to give them.

Bob Simmons spent more than four decades as a full-time broadcast and print journalist. He is a former commentator for KING-TV and former writer for the Seattle Weekly.

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