SANITATION, ENVIRONMENTAL. To the first settlers the fresh clean air and sparkling waters of the New World contrasted sharply with the ingrained dirt and filth of ancient European cities, and the vast reaches of the new continent made it difficult for them to contemplate the possibility of dirt and crowding. Nevertheless, humanity's unhappy faculty for befouling its environment soon made governmental action necessary. Shortly after the establishment of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, a law in 1644 forbade its residents from urinating and depositing filth within the fort. In 1657 other ordinances prohibited throwing dead animals, rubbish, and filth into the streets and canals of the town. The following year another ordinance decreed that certain privies that were causing an outrageous stench should be torn down. Boston and other early colonial towns soon enacted similar sanitary measures. As early as 1634 Boston prohibited depositing garbage or dead fish in the vicinity of the common landing place and passed other measures seeking to eliminate the "loathsome smells" arising from privies, slaughterhouses, and the so-called nuisance trades.
The connection between filth and disease had been made early in history and informed American colonists argued for sanitary measures on both aesthetic and health grounds. In the eighteenth century, yellow fever, which struck most heavily in the crowded and dirty dock areas, gave emphasis to the prevailing miasmatic thesis, the theory that a mysterious and invisible gas or miasma emanating from putrefying organic substances caused disease. Cadwallader Colden, a physician best known for his political activities and historical writings, warned in 1743 that New York City, because of its deleterious atmosphere and unsanitary condition, was in grave danger of yellow fever, and he urged a massive drainage and sanitary program to restore the city to a healthful state.
The pleas of Colden and other intelligent observers went unheeded, and, as the colonial settlements grew, their sanitary problems intensified at an even faster rate. The records are full of complaints about the deplorable condition of the streets and the offensive stenches arising from slaughterhouses, tanners, fat and bone boilers, and other trades. Despite a series of ordinances prohibiting the practice, drainage ditches, canals, docks, gutters, and vacant lots remained repositories for garbage, offal, carrion, rubbish, and human waste. Municipal authorities began assuming some responsibility for street cleaning and sewage removal, but their efforts rarely achieved more than temporary success.
The first tentative steps in the direction of sewer systems arose from the offensive condition of the drainage ditches and canals. In despair, local residents began demanding that these ditches be covered. In one response to a petition in 1703, New York City constructed a "Common Sewer," approximately 1,200 feet long, along Broad Street. In the succeeding years, New York and other colonial towns gradually built more of these sewers. These structures were originally meant to be conduits for draining surface water, but so much sewage flowed into the gutters that they were in actuality sewers. Since they poured their contents into the docks or onto the shores and banks of adjacent bodies of water, they created almost as much of a nuisance as the one they sought to remedy.
Water supplies were an equally grave problem. The more fortunate towns in the colonial period drew their water from fast-flowing streams or large rivers, but the majority of colonists relied on public and private wells. With the contents of privies and cesspools constantly seeping into the ground and overflowing into the gutters, these wells seldom ran dry. Not surprisingly, the consequence was endemic enteric diseases that affected all segments of the population but took their heaviest toll among infants and young children. By the 1790s Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities were developing elementary water systems. Wooden pipes and primitive steam engines supplied water to the homes of the well-to-do citizens, and occasional hydrants appeared in the poorer neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the water sources were often polluted, and even when they were safe, the frequent loss of pressure combined with leaking pipe connections led to contamination.
The nineteenth century saw sanitary conditions, particularly in towns and cities, grow steadily worse. The twin movements of industrialization and urbanization crowded the working poor into squalid warrens and created an ideal environment for Asiatic cholera and other enteric disorders. During the first half of the century, temporary health boards emerged. Although they functioned only when epidemics threatened, they occasionally initiated massive sanitary programs. These programs involved removing garbage and dead animals from the streets and lots, emptying privies and cesspools, and draining the many stagnant pools. In addition, quicklime and other substances were spread in the gutters, graveyards, and all possible sources of noxious miasmas.
Despite the efforts of these health boards, the sheer size of the garbage and human waste problems made the fight for a cleaner environment a losing battle. Municipal governments were ineffective, the prevailing technology was inadequate, the upper classes were reluctant to pay for large-scale sanitary programs, and the degradation of the poor was such that they made few protests. Not until the affluent perceived as a threat to themselves the diseases that were so rampant among the poor did they make serious efforts to improve the situation. Two dramatic epidemic diseases, Asiatic cholera and yellow fever, provided the chief impetus to sanitary reform.
Agitation for sanitary reform resulted in the formation of the Louisiana State Board of Health and a series of national sanitary conventions in the 1850s, but the Civil War cut short these promising developments. With New York City leading the way in the postwar years, municipal health departments and state boards of health rapidly began to appear. Although the bacteriological revolution was under way during these years, health boards still considered their major task to be that of improving the physical environment.
During the later years of the nineteenth century, water systems were improved and extended. Sewer systems began replacing the haphazard construction of individual conduits, and street paving improved drainage and facilitated the collection of garbage and rubbish. Furthermore, technological improvements eliminated many of the former nuisances that had outraged sensibilities and threatened health.
By the advent of the twentieth century, the discovery of pathogenic organisms had provided health authorities with a better rationale for their efforts. They no longer concentrated their attacks on dirt per se but rather on pathogenic organisms and disease-producing conditions. The old fears of miasmas and sewer gas disappeared in the face of equally grave apprehensions about germs. While dirt was no longer the bête noire of health authorities, environmental sanitation benefited from the rising standard of living that brought higher standards of personal and public hygiene.
During the twentieth century technology solved the problem of safe water supplies through the introduction of rapid sand filtration and chlorination, making effective sewer systems possible in the major cities. Major cities eliminated horses and dairy cows from built-up areas and supplanted noisy, dirty steam engines with electric trolley cars. Garbage collection and street cleaning improved, and there were profound changes in the food-processing industry. On the other hand, technology also resulted in food adulteration through dangerous chemical additives and led to new forms of air and water pollution. The internal combustion engine and the electric motor combined to eliminate the stench and flies that characterized nineteenth-century towns. Nonetheless, they, along with other technological developments, helped raise noise to dangerous levels and posed both immediate and more subtle threats to humanity's environment.
Among the subtle threats to health are carcinogens spewed forth by petrochemical and other industries; pollution of air and water by trace elements of lead, mercury, arsenicals, and asbestos; and the residues from tons of insecticides and herbicides that annually drench the landscape. A growing public awareness of the need for a concerted attack on environmental dangers led Congress to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 2 December 1970. The major purpose of the agency is to coordinate the work of the many government and private institutions and agencies involved in studying, monitoring, and enforcing antipollution activities. The EPA's attempts to control pollution inevitably have brought it into sharp conflict with strong vested interests, and it has enjoyed only qualified success.
Nonetheless, the EPA played a role in combatting a new hazard to world health that emerged in the 1970s: the widespread use of Freon compounds (otherwise known as chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosol cans, refrigeration, industrial solvents, and the production of plastic foam. These chemicals destroy the protective blanket of ozone surrounding the earth and have created a hole over the South Pole. The ozone layer limits the effect of ultraviolet rays, and some scientists suspect that the recent rise in skin cancer in Australia and southern Argentina and Chile stems from this thinning of the ozone layer. The scientific community has long been aware of the deleterious effect of chlorofluorocarbons on ozone, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that governments began to act on scientific findings. In 1987 the United States, along with 162 other countries, signed the Montreal Protocol. This agreement, amended various times in the 1990s, committed participating nations to phasing out the production and use of many chlorofluorocarbons. By 2001 the Montreal Protocol appeared to be working because the size of the hole in the ozone layer had stabilized, and leading researchers predicted that the hole would disappear within about fifty years.
During the 1970s the EPA also took part in the successful push to remove lead from paint and gasoline. In 1978 the federal government forbade the use of lead paint in housing, but the toxic metal remains a potential hazard in many dwellings built before the ban went into effect. Between 1973 and 1996 the EPA also gradually restricted the level of lead allowable in gasoline and finally banned it as a fuel additive in 1996. Because of these limits the average level of lead in American children's blood has fallen from 15 micrograms of lead per 100 cubic centimeters of blood in 1976 to only 2.7 per 1,000 in 2000. Unfortunately, lead remains a public health threat, albeit on a smaller scale, because of old-fashioned lead water pipes that may contaminate household supplies. Thus, the need for environmental sanitation measures persists despite the control of more obvious sources of pollution.
Benedick, Richard Elliot. Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Powell, J. H. Bring out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
"Sanitation, Environmental." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/sanitation-environmental
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