Help spread availability of safe drinking water

| January 2009

  • Clean water glass
    VITAL RESOURCE: A glass of water that can be enjoyed without fear of illness is something we take for granted, but 1.1 billion people worldwide still don’t have access to clean water.
    Courtesy of White Rock/DAJ/Getty Images/Family Features
  • Calluses
    ROUGH WORK: The women of Garin Makaka, Niger, show the calluses caused by hauling water from a 250-foot well five times a day.
    Courtesy of Family Features
  • Water well
    VALUABLE GIFT: People participate in a dedication ceremony for a new well provided by the West African Water Initiative in the village of Kuduli, in Ghana.
    Courtesy of Family Features

  • Clean water glass
  • Calluses
  • Water well

A cool, refreshing drink of water is something many people take for granted. Up until about 100 years ago we didn’t have access to safe drinking water. In fact, it was often dangerous.

For thousands of years, people all over the world tried to filter and purify drinking water. It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists discovered germs and learned that they could carry disease through water and other media. Filtering wasn’t enough.

Waterborne illnesses such as cholera and typhoid once killed thousands of Americans each year. During the four years of the Civil War, for example, 75,000 people came down with typhoid, and more than 27,000 died from it. In 1900, typhoid claimed another 25,000 lives.

In the early days of the 20th century, chemists found that adding small amounts of chlorine to drinking water destroys bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing microorganisms.

In 1908, Jersey City and Chicago became the first U.S. cities to use chlorine to help provide safe drinking water. By 1941, chlorine disinfection was being used by 85 percent of U.S. water treatment systems, and typhoid was nearly eradicated.

In a report called “The History of Drinking Water Treatment” (2000), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “it was disinfectants like chlorine that played the largest role in reducing the number of waterborne disease outbreaks in the early 1900s.”

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