In the Greatest Public Health Advancement of the 20th Century, a Lesson in Courage

At United Water, every day as water professionals, we are committed to providing our customers with water that that meets or surpasses all the standards for safe drinking water. We do this by providing essential and extensively engineered barriers between pollutants, industrial and municipal waste, and the clean safe drinking water that our families, our communities and our country depend on.

Last week, in honor of National Drinking Water Week, we sat down with Mike McGuire, author of The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives.  In his recently published book, McGuire tells the story of the greatest health advancement of the millennium – the chlorination of drinking water. The then controversial innovation ultimately eradicated waterborne diseases and is directly correlated with prolonged life expectancy and a drastic reduction in infant mortality rates.

The protagonists in McGuire’s historical account are little known physicians named Dr. John L. Leal who partnered with engineer George Warren Fuller to chlorinate the Jersey City public water system at the Boonton Reservoir in 1908.  Following a long and public trial in which the visionaries had to defend their advancement, Leal and Fuller’s experiment was further vindicated; chlorine use expanded in leaps and bounds and by 1914 more than 53% of Americans were drinking chlorinated drinking water. By 1941 the drinking and wastewater industry made waterborne diseases and words such as “typhoid” and “cholera” relics of the past in America. [1]

About Dr. Leal, McGuire writes, “his predominant personal attribute was a quiet courage.  In the face of certain disapproval from his peers and possible condemnation by the public, he did what he thought was right – he added a chemical, (then viewed as a poison) to drinking water. It was extraordinary that he found the fortitude to follow this path when all of the experts rallied against it.”

Historically and in modern days, several aspects of water and wastewater management are often misunderstood, taken for granted, or even controversial. At United Water, we believe with effective technologies, R&D and management strategies we can ensure public health in the present with creativity and build for the future with confidence.

We are proud that our North Jersey drinking water forefathers took this radical step to eradicate cholera and typhoid in the early 1900’s. And we are honored to operate and maintain the Boonton reservoir and water treatment plant, a living historical monument to innovation, courage and the Chlorine Revolution.

[1] (Regretfully, in developing nations, more than 4 million people still die annually from waterborne diseases and the lack of access to the clean and safe drinking water that most readers of this blog accept as commonplace. United Water supports Water For People’s courageous mission to provide everyone improved water forever. )

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