Water is a vital life source that many people in the United States may not pay much mind to.
Waterborne illnesses affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide, mainly those in developing countries, according to Lifewater. Diseases that can be transmitted through water include typhoid, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, salmonella, e. coli, and giardia.
“Water is something that I think sometimes people take for granted, but there’s also a recognition of how important water is to our lives,” said Dr. Joan Rose, a microbiologist and the 2016 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate.
Compared to the developing world, drinking water in the United States is generally safe, but waterborne illnesses still can, and do, happen here, especially as new microorganisms emerge. In her 30 years of working as a microbiologist focusing on water safety, Dr. Rose has seen her fair share of outbreaks at home and abroad.
Learning from the past
“I think when people turn on their tap, they don’t necessarily know where their water came from, and when they flush the toilet, they don’t know where their water goes,” Dr. Rose said. “I think in some ways, the water professionals and the water industry like that they can produce something that enhances people’s quality of life and you don’t have to think about it.”
Behind the scenes, though, a significant amount of money, research, and legislation supports the advancement of clean water programs in the United States. For example, President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was signed in November 2021, allocated $43 billion toward water infrastructure, making it “the single largest investment in water the federal government has ever made,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted in a March 2022 press release.
This investment is important for preventing a repeat of historical waterborne illness outbreaks, such as the 1993 Milwaukee Cryptosporidiosis outbreak — considered the largest waterborne illness outbreak in the United States — that Dr. Rose studied. Exposure to Cryptosporidium, also called “Crypto,” leads to the diarrheal disease Cryptosporidiosis in animals and humans.
Drinking water and recreational water is the most common way to spread the parasite Cryptosporidium, and it is the most common cause of waterborne disease among people in the U.S. In spring 1993, an outbreak in Milwaukee involving the parasite sickened about 400,000 people and killed 69 people, according to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, which is associated with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I kind of joke that Cryptosporidium was one of my mentors. I learned about that organism; I followed it around,” Dr. Rose said. “And I have to say that it really struck me that this was Milwaukee… because people died from their tap water in the United States, and that doesn’t happen here, right?”
Dr. Rose then studied the 2000 E. Coliwaterborne illness outbreak in the smaller town of Walkerton in Ontario, Canada, which reportedly sickened 2,300 people and killed seven people. In that case, children were the victims.
“There was a lot of suffering with it,” said Dr. Rose, who added that from then on, her research expanded to a global scale. One of the reasons she stayed interested in the field of study was that it became multidisciplinary, and she began working with specialists such as chemists and hydrologists, along with operators and engineers to study water infrastructure and safety.
Investing in water safety
Of course, the aforementioned outbreaks were not the catalyst for better policy making such as the recent infrastructure bill. Dr. Rose noted that a pivotal period for water safety policy was 1974 when the Safe Drinking Water Act was developed. This act allowed the “EPA to establish minimum standards to protect tap water and requires all owners or operators of public water systems to comply with these primary (health-related) standards,” according to the EPA’swebsite.
Before that, outbreaks were generally unpredictable and people lived in fear, with a constant need to stay vigilant, Dr. Rose described. “We don’t comprehend what people probably went through way back when,” she said. “It was scary; you didn’t know when disease was going to happen, or hit your town, or affect your family.”
Routine water testing is crucial because potentially harmful microbes are unseen, and undetectable, to humans. “That testing is really, really important to water quality,” said Dr. Rose, who described this process as complex. “We’re always finding something new, like PFAS,” which are called ”forever chemicals.”
While specialists and scientists like Dr. Rose are behind the scenes testing water, communities can play a role in helping ensure their water is safe too. Dr. Rose encouraged greater public education about water sourcing and safety, and the role of water in economic growth. She also emphasized the importance of public involvement.
“We want to engage those people that are passionate about the environment, and passionate about their water systems, to get them involved and support community groups for watershed coalitions,” Dr. Rose said. “We have to have an engagement with the people that are passionate enough to say, ‘I want to spend more time and help my community on this particular topic.’ And we know that’s not going to be everybody. But hopefully, everybody can learn and understand about their waters and their wastewater systems.”
Although many people may not think twice about the safety of their drinking water, Dr. Rosebelieves there is a greater awareness of the potential for waterborne illness. “I think we’ve come full circle,” she said. “It seems like the public has become more aware and more in tune with what’s going on with their infrastructure, and the safety of their water systems, and the potential disease and disease spread.”