Water and Wastewater infrastructure is something that most modern nations are accustomed to. Every day, we use water to make our coffee, take showers, clean our laundry, and the list goes go on and on.
Over the past 140 years, with developments of laws such as the "Clean Water Act" and having access to information and technology, life expectancy in modern nations has increased. It is assumed that progress in life expectancy can be attributed to advances in medicine with improved surgical procedures and pharmaceutical developments advancing antibiotics and vaccines. While medical practices can be thanked for improving overall public health, water and wastewater management can also be acknowledged for this improvement.
Clean drinking water and the treatment of sanitary waste were not common in the 1880s. This period was the beginning of the surge in public health awareness and investment in water infrastructure. This can be shown in the data below.
In 1880, life expectancy in the USA stood at 40 years. Currently, in the United States, waterborne diseases were a significant contributor to early death, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children. These issues were well recognized at the time and caused the formation of the modern water treatment industry. By 1920, life expectancy at birth had increased to 55 years almost entirely due to sanitary practices. Medical advances during the 1920s were very slow to progress, with many families relying on homespun remedies with no proven health benefits.
From 1920 to 1960, a similar period of 40 years, medical advances increased our life expectancy from 55 to 70 years old. However, those increases, 15 years each segment, are equal to what we achieved with basic water sanitation. The rise in life expectancy since 1960 has slowed due to a variety of factors, suspecting age is a more challenging disease to conquer.
In summary, the increase in life expectancy in the last 140 years is roughly 93%. The contribution from increased sanitation practices is 38% and 40% from water treatment. These facts are often overlooked due to the progress being made over a century ago and the access to medical information we all have access to today. Next time you take a glass of clean water, or flush water down your drains, remember that it is a gift that your water is treated. Thank your water and wastewater professionals for their hard work in keeping us all healthy!
“200 Years of Public Health Has Doubled Our Life Expectancy.” San Juan Basin Public Health, 25 Sept. 2020, sjbpublichealth.org/200-years-public-health-doubled-life-expectancy/.
O'Neill, Aaron. “United States: Life Expectancy 1860-2020.” Statista, 3 Feb. 2021, www.statista.com/statistics/1040079/life-expectancy-united-states-all-time/.