The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota, although the death toll eventually ended up to no more than your average bad traffic accident, proved a shock, and produced more than a little soul-searching about the state of America. There was, at least briefly, some recognition that infrastructure costs money, and that the very foundations of American prosperity and wellbeing today — the roads, the bridges, the dams, the power supplies built through Roosevelt’s New Deal and the post-World War II economic boom — are all reaching the end of their natural life.
In The Blue Death Dr Robert D. Morris alerts America to a potential further problem that didn’t even appear in the talk of dams and roads after the collapse. His book is subtitled “Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink”. At its heart is an account of a cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee transmitted through its municipal water supply that killed more than 100, led to the hospitalisation of 4,000 and made 400,000 ill. What was so frightening about the case was that the water met all of the official standards for quality – and the treatment of it had followed all of the established protocols.
Blue Death is a curious book, a history written by a physician who is at the heart of the struggle to rethink what is needed to provide safe drinking water. It’s clearly very personal – he identifies with John Snow, the 19th-century British physician and pioneer in the understanding of the cause of cholera, and oddly partial in its selection of historical perspective. Nonetheless, he has some frightening, and possibly vital, things to say. We think of drinking water now as a basic given – through the tap or even in plastic bottles, but after reading this book you’ll start to wonder.
Morris begins with a long account of the life of Snow and the well-known story of how he proved the cause of cholera lay in drinking water, traced to the Broad Street pump in central London, although the intellectual battle was not definitively won until long after Snow’s death. He was a prophet not granted his due, and it’s clear that Morris regards himself the same way – which doesn’t mean of course that he isn’t right.
Morris follows the cholera bacterium to Egypt in 1883, where the French and Germans were rushing to use an outbreak to try to identify this dangerous, often deadly, beast. (The opening of the Suez canal had suddenly made Europe seem vulnerable again.) And that danger proved real when the disease reached Hamburg soon after, from where Robert Koch finally provided the evidence that medical opinion and official opinion could no longer deny – that contaminated water spread the bacteria causing the deadly disease.
The tale of cholera occupies almost half of Blue Death, then Morris suddenly moves to America, and Chicago in 1900, where the rate of endemic typhoid was higher than in any other city in Europe or North America. The city fathers sneakily secured a supply of fresh water by reversing the course of the Chicago River. Instead of feeding water into Lake Michigan, water would run from the lake, taking with it the sewage of Chicago, carrying it eventually down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
There are many dramatic tales, such as the death of an early diver attempting to repair the Jersey City Resevior. They make interesting reading, if not always adding to Blue Death’s thesis or direction.
It is when he gets to the modern day that Morris really has something to say, and he does a good job of presenting the science clearly for a lay reader. It's on page 234 that you get to what Morris really wants to say: “The tiny oocyte [cryptosporidium] certainly got the industry’s attention. No one wanted a disaster like Milwaukee’s to occur on his or her watch. In the drinking water industry, however, big changes mean massive capital investment with long lead times. Over the next nine years, I would watch drinking–water industry lobbyists do whatever they could to slow down and dilute the industry efforts that followed.”
Morris concludes with his prescriptions for improving water security. He identifies as the most controversial a recommendation for widespread use of “point of use” filters, in homes, offices and other points of use. After reading Blue Death you might not want to wait for official assistance, but go out to purchase one of your own.