The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (MIT Press)

Posted By on June 29, 2017

The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (MIT Press)

The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (MIT Press)

  • The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects–particularly for pregnant women and young children–and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure–explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

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This article has 2 comments

  1. 4 of 13 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    A little lead won’t hurt ya! Look at me, March 31, 2007
    By 
    A_2007_reader (Vladivostok, Russia) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    Romans had lead in their pipes–you wanna blame the rise and fall of the Roman Empire on lead pipes? Lead is just a nuissance, ntohing more. Hech, I used to eat lead painat asa a kidd and I don’t have any long erm side effects that I’m awarae of.

    More seriously, the book has an irritating flaw: it keeps comparing old standards of care with modern standards of care in diagnosing lead, and then becomes an apologist for why the old standards were not that bad. Case in point: throughout the book the author points out that in the past people warned about lead in water, but since the mechanism on how lead hurts people was not fully understood (and still isn’t, as the author says), these people could be ignored. That’s like saying since the exact mechanism for smoking causing cancer is not yet fully understood, at the molecular level, then past attempts to say smoking is harmful are flawed and can be ignored. This point by the author is emphasized throughout and is irritating.

    Other than that, a decent book, but since the literature on lead is so extensive, I don’t really see this book adding anything of value already not known. It also tries too hard to be ‘scientific’ by discussing a regression analysis, as if that’s something radical. Further, the author spends little time on the ‘real reason’ (IMO) why lead mitigation is ignored: it’s not too little scientific data, but rather the huge costs in upgrading municipal water supplies. The same argument is being made even today, not just for lead, as the author points out for Washington, DC, but for other drugs and chemicals found in water.

    3 stars max.

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  2. 4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    history, science, policy–what more could you want?, December 18, 2006
    By 
    Veteran Reds Fan (was Ohio now Tennessee) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    Troesken smoothly integrates several complex topics in a very readable style. If you wondered how lead is so toxic, as well as the surprising level of exposure to it in the past, wonder no more. He carefully establishes how common it was to be exposed to levels of lead in drinking water that were dozens of times higher than the present day EPA maximum. He establishes that public officials were loathe to do anything about it, in large part due to lead’s excellent capabilities–it’s malleable, strong, and cheap. And ever so toxic. Troesken concludes with a recommendation for further study on an overlooked topic–effects on human health of nonorganic toxins in the past. One more reason I’m glad to be alive now.
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