This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 2011 - clean water worth the cost

In the 19th century, cholera killed tens of millions of people around the world. In 1854, a pandemic killed over 5.5% of the population of Chicago. In that same year, London had an outbreak that was carefully studied by physician John Snow. He became the first to advance an important new theory. Cholera was caused not by "miasma" or "bad air" but by contaminated water.

Typhoid fever was also linked to contaminated water. It, too, has a long history. On the basis of some (disputed) DNA research some historians believe typhoid fever is what wiped out the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

During the American Civil War, over 80,000 Union soldiers died of typhoid or dysentery.

William Wallace Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's third son, died of typhoid fever. So did Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. And so did Stephen Douglas, the "Little Giant" after whom Douglas County is named.

But after Snow's singlehanded invention of epidemiology, American cities made massive investments in water and sewage treatment. And between 1850 and 1900, cholera and typhoid fever were almost completely eliminated in the United States (except for one last cholera outbreak in 1910-11). Since then, ongoing regulations preserve that record.

Whenever somebody says, "what's government ever done for ME?" remember this. Public investment in infrastructure nobody sees, everybody takes for granted, means that you and your children don't die of preventable illness. It wasn't business that did that. It was government.

After the United States, many European states invested in filtration and chlorination systems, with a similar reduction in deaths.

The rest of the world isn't so fortunate. Between 1900 and 1920, an estimated eight million people died of cholera in India. Contaminated water in developing countries remains a significant problem. Waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death for children under five. A host of international organizations have concluded something that is by now, I hope, obvious: One of the most important health issues around the globe is clean water.

As of last year, roughly 84% of the world population could count on clean water piped right to their houses. About 14% can not.

After natural disasters - like the earthquake/tsunami in Japan - the greatest single threat to health probably is not nuclear power plants. It is waterborne diseases, precipitated by the catastrophic collapse of public systems.

Recently, I've listened to several local governments grappling with the issue of Douglas County's long term water supply. We're lucky in that much of our water infrastructure is relatively new. But it does not have the capacity to support much in the way of new growth.

For large parts of the county, and indeed of our entire country, we are approaching a time when it will be necessary to massively reinvest in the hidden systems that keep us alive and healthy.

The American public had that will to invest in the late 1800s, even after a devastating Civil War. Sometimes I wonder, amidst the many discussions of tax slashing, budget reductions, and mistrust of government, whether we do today. And what the consequences will be if we do not.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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