A Public Health Giant Step:
Chlorination of U.S. Drinking Water
a copy of this article.
century ago, in 1908, chlorine chemistry's germ-defeating
properties were demonstrated in drinking water in two
very different settings in the United States. First,
chlorination transformed animal feed water, drawn from
a highly polluted stream in Chicago's Union Stockyards,
into a product that exceeded the purity of city water.
Days later, in Jersey City, chlorinated water was supplied
for the first time on a permanent basis to a large U.S.
municipality. The results included a dramatic decline
in the local typhoid fever rate and a water supply that,
according to a 1928 sanitary engineering report, "is
not only of a high sanitary quality, but…it compares
favorably with the best in the country."1
news traveled quickly and within a decade, drinking
water chlorination spread to nearly every large city
in the country. It has been called "a tremendous boon
in the safeguarding of public health all over the world
and is probably the most important and efficient sanitary
measure of protection ever introduced2."
article describes two historic milestones in the events
leading to widespread chlorination of U.S. drinking
was late summer, 1908, and there was a problem in Chicago's
Union Stockyards: the livestock were not gaining weight.
The water, it was suspected, was the problem. The stockyards
supplied filtered drinking water to the animals from
a nearby creek. But the animals only gained weight when
they were given Chicago city water. Unfortunately, diverting
city water was illegal and Chicago officials had sued
the stockyards for poaching municipal water. Something
had to be done.
Unfit for Man or Beast
Chicago Union Stockyards was the bustling hub of the
U.S. meat trade at the dawn of the 20th century.
Built in 1864 by a consortium of nine railroad companies,
the stockyards served as a focal point of commerce between
East and West. By 1900, the Union Stockyards comprised
475 acres imprinted with 50 miles of roads and bordered
by 130 miles of railroad track. Meatpacking companies
established operations in the "yards" and employed more
than 25,000 people, mostly immigrants3, working
in conditions described as appalling in literature such
as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
were not very good for the animals either. The creek
that supplied water to the livestock was the nearby
meat-waste-polluted tributary of the Chicago River known
as Bubbly Creek. "Bubbly" it was-from the gases given
off from decaying animal parts. The creek oozed methane
and hydrogen sulfide, releasing a rotten egg odor. A
filtration plant, built on the south bank of the Creek
in 1907, cleared the water of particles and debris before
it was distributed to the animal drinking troughs. Copper
sulfate was added to the water at the treatment plant
as a germicide, but it would have removed only algae.
The livestock failed to thrive on filtered Bubbly Creek
Saves the Day
In late summer of 1908, George A. Johnson of the New
York firm of Hering & Fuller was summoned by the stockyards
to test the quality of Bubbly Creek treated water. At
the treatment plant, Johnson pronounced the filtration
operation satisfactory, but noted the bacterial count
of a water sample soared in the period following its
drawing. This, he concluded, was due to the high organic
matter content of the water. Between September 3 and
September 17, Johnson tested a germicide known as "chloride
of lime" in the filtered water of Bubbly Creek. The
results reversed the original water quality situation:
it was reported that filtered and chlorinated Bubbly
Creek water had become cleaner than Chicago municipal
addition of chlorine disinfection of Bubbly Creek water
solved the livestock drinking water problem in the Union
Stockyards. In later years Johnson would use the example
of Bubbly Creek to demonstrate that filtration alone,
without disinfection, is insufficient for treating drinking
City, New Jersey
of Jersey City, circa
Photo courtesy of The New Jersey Room
Jersey City Free Public Library
1908, Jersey City, located on the west bank of the Hudson
River across from Lower Manhattan, was a busy industrial
and railroad center and home to approximately 200,000
residents. For several years following the construction
of a new water supply system in 1904, the city had been
at odds with the local water company over the quality
of the municipal drinking water. Jersey City had sued
the Jersey City Water Supply Company for failing to
meet a contract requirement, namely that "the water
to be furnished must be pure and wholesome for drinking
and domestic purposes…"4
all developed American cities of the day, Jersey City
had battled typhoid fever, which can be transmitted
through unsanitary water, since at least the late 1880s.
In 1895 the typhoid death rate had reached "the startling
figures of 80 per 100,000 population."5 In
that year the water supply, taken from the Passaic River,
was cut off and a temporary supply tapped from the Pequannock
River. By 1898, the typhoid fever death rate had dropped
to 40.6 per 100,0006, which was better, but
1904, Jersey City began receiving untreated drinking
water from the Boonton Reservoir, an impoundment of
the Rockaway River 23 miles west of the city. The water
was delivered from Boonton to two local reservoirs through
a series of steel pipes and masonry conduits. High bacterial
counts were noted a few days per year, generally associated
with high water and flooding. In 1906 a typhoid fever
rate of 21.4 per 100,000 was recorded.
Issues on Trial
New Jersey court offered the opinion on May 8, 1908
that purification of Jersey City water could be achieved
at great expense by means of a filter plant, but because
such a facility had not been part of the original plans,
a filter plant could be dismissed from consideration
unless "indispensably necessary" to complete contract
obligation. Based on evidence given the city, the court
said that the situation could be remedied if sewers
and sewage disposal works were built for communities
in the watershed. The city would hold fast to the opinion
that the water company should construct sewer works.
advisor to the water company, Dr. John L. Leal, did
not agree that these expensive measures would be effective.
He believed, as he later told members of the American
Water Works Association (AWWA), that "…by far the greater
percentage of bacterial and B. coli found at
the point of delivery in Jersey City was due more to
the washings of soil, roads, streets, manured fields,
etc., than from any sewage contamination…" He had a
novel, inexpensive solution in mind for ridding Jersey
City drinking water of bacteria, and on his advice,
the court gave the water company 90 days to suggest
its own method of meeting the contract requirements.
Leal Prepares a Disinfection Plan
had experimented since the late 1890s with "electrolytic
solutions of salt." Salt, sodium chloride, is essentially
split into chlorine gas and a sodium compound when electricity
is passed through salty water. The doctor had also investigated
liquid bleach, sodium hypochlorite, a compound of sodium,
oxygen and chlorine. When applied to water, both chlorine
gas and bleach form hypochlorous acid, a strong disinfectant.
Leal's idea was to apply a chlorine disinfectant to
Jersey City water to destroy any bacteria present. He
had 90 days to implement his plan.
to find the appropriate electrolytic equipment that
would yield chlorine gas or liquid bleach, Leal decided
to use powdered chloride of lime, the same disinfectant
used by Johnson in Chicago. The necessary treatment
apparatus was designed by Mr. George Warren Fuller of
Hering & Fuller. Fuller created a system to add dissolved chloride of lime into the water
supply as it left the Boonton Reservoir and flowed to
the city. On September 26, 1908, the
Houses and Chlorination Plant at Boonton Reservoir
circa 1908 (The chlorination plant is the
building at the center.)
Photo courtesy of Keith Wood, Watershed Superintendent,
United Water Jersey City
Jersey City water began with George A. Johnson of Hering
& Fuller, veteran of Bubbly Creek, in charge of operations.
September 26, 2008 marks a century of continuous chlorination
for this pioneering water system.
Struggle for Acceptance
very low bacteria levels in city water following the
introduction of chlorination, newspaper accounts from
the time show that the city would continue to argue
for sewer works in the watershed. The litigation would
prove to be a "severe drain on the taxpayers," according
to a newspaper account in May, 1909. A May 5 article
in The Evening Journal7 titled, "Jersey
City Water Gets Hard Knocks," states, "The city claims
the works as now built need intercepting sewers to make
them acceptable. The chemical treatment of the Boonton
water as tried by the water company has not proved satisfactory,
so the city claims." Testimony reported pits the city
against the Jersey City Water Supply Company, with the
two sides disputing sampling results at various locations
in the watershed. The city battled on, convinced that
the water company should furnish sewers.
Battle Goes to Milwaukee
the court case was pending, the stakes for the city
were so high that worried city commissioners followed
Dr. Leal, George Warren Fuller and George Johnson to
Milwaukee for the 1909 AWWA annual meeting. Reporting
on the planned journey, The June 2 Evening Journal
headlines claimed "Water Board to Watch Dr. Leal: Commissioners
Start for Milwaukee Saturday Night to Prevent National
Convention Indorsement [sic] of Chemical Treatment
of Boonton Water." The newspaper was very clear about
the purpose of the commissioners' attendance at the
of the objects of the trip is to keep an eye on Dr.
John L. Leal and Expert George Johnson of the East
Jersey Water Company…Dr. Leal is a good talker and
able scientist and some of the Jersey City officials
are wondering whether the doctor will try to get the
convention's indorsement [sic] of his bleaching powder
process. It is asserted that if the convention were
to indorse the chemical process it would be a great
feather in the East Jersey's cap."
presentations of Leal, Fuller and Johnson to the AWWA
membership in June, 1909 record for all time the circumstances
and details of the first large-scale, continuous implementation
of drinking water chlorination in the United States.
In this national gathering of water professionals, the
argument for chemical disinfection was elevated to a
level of prominence needed for eventual public acceptance,
beyond the realm of local politics.
of the presenters described his contribution to the
project. Dr. Leal related the legal history of the water
company and his concept for chlorine disinfection; George
Warren Fuller explained the construction and design
of the "sterilization plant;" and George Johnson discussed
the methods of operation of the plant.
presented by the three men lent support to the effectiveness
and low cost of chlorination. Water treated with very
small applications of chlorine indicated very low levels
of bacteria. Johnson revealed the cost of chlorine treatment
to be 14 cents per million gallons, a mere $5.60 per
day for Jersey City's 40 million gallons daily usage.
Boonton Plant is Approved and Public Health is the Winner
May 9, 1910, almost one year after the momentous AWWA
Milwaukee meeting, the Boonton Plant was approved by
a "special master in chancery" of the court. By the
1920s, chlorination was well-established as the primary
means of disinfecting drinking water.
Water Chlorination Spreads across America
Baker in his 1948 book, "The Quest for Pure Water8,"
states, "Nothing in the field of water purification
came into use as rapidly and as widely, once it got
a good start, as chlorination". Baker credits its adoption
at Jersey City's Boonton Reservoir as the impetus for
its subsequent widespread use. By 1941, Baker reported
4,590 out of 5,372 [85 percent] treatment plants used
chlorine for disinfection.9 Reliance on chlorine disinfectants
remains high today, according to AWWA data.
his June, 1909 report to the AWWA, Dr. Leal said he
believed one of the most important uses of chlorination
would be "in conjunction with filtration." His words
were prophetic: in 1997 Life magazine declared,
"The filtration of drinking water plus the use of chlorine
is probably the most significant public health advance
of the millennium."
2004 statistical study of disease rates in cities found
clean water to be the reason for rapid declines in urban
death rates during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The study concludes that clean water was responsible
for "nearly half of the total mortality reduction in
major cities, three-quarters of the infant mortality
reduction, and nearly two-thirds of the child mortality
reduction." The study puts forth a striking finding
-- that chlorination and filtration reduced typhoid
fever by 91percent within 5 years, leading to its near-eradication
predicted the use of chlorine disinfectants during water
supply emergencies "where water supplies have become
infected and where it is impossible to cease using such
supplies." He called such practical applications "a
great advance in the science of water purification."Leal
continued to say that "it is so cheap, so easy and quick
of application, so certain in its results, and so safe,
that it seems to me to cover a broader field than does
any other system of water purification yet used. It
cannot but conduce to the economic and physical benefit
words resonate today. While safe drinking water technology
is the norm in the developed world, some 1.2 billion
people in the developing world lack access to safe water.
Sadly, most of the victims of waterborne diseases are
children under the age of five. Access to safe water
technology not only reduces disease, but also provides
a range of economic benefits for a community. The World
Health Organization (WHO) has reported that global investments
in water access yield direct and indirect benefits that
far exceed the associated costs. Where piped water supplies
are not currently available, simple technologies to
treat water in individual households can provide immediate
benefits. WHO reports, "Household approaches, including
treatment with chlorine-based disinfectants, have been
shown to be extremely cost effective, rapidly deployable,
and can lead to significant health gains."
history of U.S. drinking water chlorination began in
the dusty stockyards of Chicago and in thriving Jersey
City, with its view of the back of the Statue of Liberty.
In these two unlikely places, Fuller, Leal and Johnson
demonstrated the power of chemistry over waterborne
germs, igniting a revolution that continues to yield
public health benefits 100 years later.
of W.C. Mallalieu, Sanitary Engineer consultant, New
York City, 1928.
2Report of Daniel D. Jackson, Sanitary and
Chemical Engineer, Executive Officer of the Dept. of
Chemical Engineering of Columbia University, November,
3Chicago Historical Society, "Slaughterhouse
to the world," on-line: http://www.chicagohs.org/history/stock.html,
4J.L. Leal (1909), The sterilization plant
of the Jersey City Water Supply Company at Boonton,
N.J., American Water Works Association Conference, Milwaukee,
5From a lecture delivered by E.W. Harrison,
Civil Engineer, before the Historical Society of Hudson
County, New Jersey, 1909.
6Figure from Jersey City historical records
supplied by United Water Jersey City.
7In 1910, The Evening Journal became
The Jersey Journal.
8Baker, M.N. (1948). The Quest for Pure
Water: The history of water purification from the earliest
records to the Twentieth Century, American Water
Works Association, Inc., New York.
9McGuire, M. (2006). Eight revolutions in
the history of U.S. drinking water disinfection, Journal
of the American Water Works Association (March).
10Cutler, D., G. Miller, 2004. The role of public health improvements in health advances: the 20th century United States. National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 10511. Cambridge, MA, USA.
11J.L. Leal (1909).