Tag Archives: cholera

“The Great Stink” & Cholera Containment

The prevailing scientific theory the time of the cholera outbreak in London was that cholera was transmitted by foul odor (miasma theory).  The concept of ‘bacteria’ wasn’t understood—many people thought if they couldn’t “see” illness causing bacteria, it wasn’t really there. People trusted the advice of “medical quacks,” instead of common sense cures to tackle the dehydration.

Faraday testing the waters of the Thames, 1855 Punch Magazine, volume 29 Westminster City Archives

Faraday testing the waters of the Thames, 1855 Punch Magazine, volume 29 Westminster City Archives

It was felt that cholera was a socioeconomic disease, associated with those of lower morality and the “poor, stinking masses.” As cities grew in population, the pre-industrial waste infrastructure was unable to handle the excess excrement.  Cities lacked the modern resources we take for granted, such as recycling and safe sewage removal.  Leaky cesspools were the standard method of waste disposal, and these compromised fresh water sources.

The Great Stink ushered in new sanitation laws. In part because the Parliament could no longer tolerate the smell of the Thames River, a new sewer system was constructed which is still in use today.  Public spending increases, which brings new parks into cities to provide fresh air.  By 1875, the Public Health Act would require all houses to have their own sanitation and water.

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Boston’s Sewage System

Like many contemporary industrial cities, Boston has had sewers for hundreds of years.  These early sewers, like those located in London, were privately owned and originally designed for draining water from cellars. There were conflicts over who owned these sewers and in 1709, the Massachusetts General Court stepped in and passed an act regulating their construction, as well as fees for their use.  As these sewers were designed for water drainage, no waste was allowed into the burgeoning sewer “system.”  Eventually, a more efficient waste system was needed for the growing city, and in 1833, these old sewers were pressed into service to serve that need. Problems would quickly arise because of stagnated sanitary waste, and it was quickly thought that adding rainwater from roofs would help to “flush” the sewers.  It was ineffective, and Boston would face the same waste disposal issue facing other growing industrial cities.  Cholera, typhoid and dysentery began to increase, and over time, it determined that an inadequate sewer system was to blame.  By 1875, a study would be conducted to find a remedy to this problem, and this would lead to the construction of the Boston Main Drainage System (BMDS).[1]

The BMDS was constructed from 1877 to 1884 to collect waste from local sewers and carry it, as well as runoff rainwater, through the city to pumping stations.  The waste and rainwater would travel a portion of the 25 mile system to the pumping stations, eventually reaching an offshore disposal point.  As Boston continued to grow, the sewer projects were expanded in size and scope. However, there were still areas of the city that were outside the service area. To address this need, the Metropolitan Sewerage System was formed in 1889, becoming the first modern sewer system of its kind.[2]  Although Metropolitan Boston’s sewer system was considered “one of the best in the country 100 years ago,” years of poor planning and neglect would nearly ruin it.  Wastewater, still “merely collected and deposited into Boston Harbor,” would pollute the area, causing ruinous damage to the clam and shellfish industries.

Eventually, it was decided to “treat” the waste before sending it out to sea with the high tide.[3] Offshore treatment facilities were built, further expanding the system.    A new outfall tunnel moves waste out of the harbor to a more distant and deeper water location in the Massachusetts Bay.  Diffuser heads now allow for 100 parts seawater to 1 part waste ratio, which serves the immediate needs of the Boston area.  These strategies have solved many of the centuries old questions of adequate waste removal, however for as advanced as they have become, sanitary waste still is still put in the water and sent out with the tide.[4]



Diffuser Cap:

Initial dilution of the effluent from the new diffusers is about 1 part treated effluent to 100 parts seawater.


Boston Water and Sewer Commission. http://www.bwsc.org/ABOUT_BWSC/systems/sewer/Sewer_history.asp  (13 January 2010).

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. http:/ /www.mwra.com/harbor/graphic/diffusers_linedrawing.gif  (13 January 2010).

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. http://www.mwra.com/harbor/html/outfall_update.htm (13 January 2010).

[1] Boston Water and Sewer Commission. http://www.bwsc.org/ABOUT_BWSC/systems/sewer/Sewer_history.asp  (13 January 2010).

[2] Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. http://www.mwra.com/harbor/html/outfall_update.htm (13 January 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Boston Water and Sewer Commission.

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Harare: 2009 Cholera Outbreak


Follow Image for New York Times coverage

The Zimbabwe government cut the supply of water to the capital city Harare in December because it could no longer afford the chemicals to purify it. The loss sanitation coupled with a failing heath care system has led to a cholera outbreak. At the time, Health Minister David Parirenyatwa’s advice to Zimbabweans during this crisis was to stop shaking hands. “I want to stress the issue of shaking hands. Although it’s part of our tradition to shake hands, it’s high time people stopped shaking hands.”

In the surrounding townships, many of which have been without municipal water for over two years, locals have been digging their own wells and selling the water for profit.  Parirenyatwa pins blame on this practice for fueling the epidemic, saying “What I am afraid of is now that the rainy season has come, the faeces lying in the bushes will be washed into shallow wells and contaminate the water.”  The multiple crises faced by Zimbabwe has resulted in rioting by both the civilian population and the military.

Currently, at Bulawayo’s National University of Science and Technology, scientists are researching low cost purification methods.  The drought resistant Moringa tree, widely found in Zimbabwe, could provide rural areas with safe drinking water. 
”So far, the treatment of water with Moringa seed powder has proven to be an effective method of reducing water-borne diseases and correct pH, said Ellen Mangore, a civil engineer at the university. Research will continue with the powder, as well as household chemicals such as bleach.

Fortunately, heavy rains have slowed the cholera situation somewhat.  Locals have been collecting the rainwater to drink, and “sustained heavy rains this late in the rainy season have also washed away disease-carrying contaminants that the initial rains carried into water sources.” An announcement of $10 million in spending from the Finance Ministry to tackle the Harare water situation “should help reduce the incidence of cholera in the capital and in the high-density suburbs or townships that have been hit hard by the epidemic” and provide “incremental improvements in public water supplies” according to Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Chiroto.







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