Source: The Seattle
Times, September 20, 2007.
The Blue Death
Robert D. Morris,
Harper Collins, New York, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-06-073089-5
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
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
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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