The flush toilet was introduced in England at the Great Exhibition of 1851; in one day 11,171 of the 109,676 visitors to the Exhibition tried out the new facilities which were considered a fascinating novelty. Soon they began to be available generally– “the first ‘halting station,’ or public lavatory, was installed in Fleet Street,” that year and soon people began installing them in their homes. 1 Early toilets were highly decorative (styled with Grecian columns or leaping fish around the bowl) and moderately functional. They weren’t always great at self clearing and often people instituted daily or weekly routines of bringing buckets of water for extra flushes to help out the mechanical system. One of the most popular models was the pull flush mechanism designed by one Thomas Crapper (not kidding) that used the gravity weight of water in an elevated tank to get rid of waste.2
But where did it go?
Mostly, it went into the river. This wasn’t entirely on purpose but it wasn’t given a great deal of foresight either. Regardless of the fact that the Thames was London’s main source of drinking water, sewage flowed from underground cesspools, to underground rivers and eventually (as should surprise no one) into the main river. Eventually, “the tributary rivers of London doubled as sewers,” and flowed with chemical effluent, trash, dead animals and a whole lot of human waste. London did have a sewer system but it had been intended only for rainwater and as they filled up with sewage they became unsanitary and dangerous. At one point the Fleet River (long channelized under the city) built up so much methane that it blew up, demolishing three houses.3
The Great Stink
I’ll let one of my favorite fictional characters carry on the story for me:
“So after the Great Stink of 1858 –”
“Whatever was the Great Stink,” asked Harriet, charmed.
“A stench so awful from the tidal mudbanks in the Thames that curtains soaked in chloride of lime had to be hung at the windows of the Palace of Westminster to allow the MPs to get through necessary parliamentary business.”
“So, they had to do something about it?”
“Yes. An engineer called Joseph Bazalgette, whose name would be immortal and known to every schoolboy if there were any justice in the world, built intercepting sewers running parallel with the Thames at three levels, that carried away the muck to outfalls below London. Look, you see, here they are, running east to west on the map.”
“Does this still work?” asked Harriet.
“Yes, it does. There are treatment works at the outfalls now, of course. And the poor ensewered rivers still run forgotten beneath our feet.”
Lord Peter to Harriet Vane in Thrones, Dominations4
The Chicago System
London is far from being the only culprit in fouling its own nest, sewer wise. One of my favorite examples is the city of Chicago. They set up their Combined Sewer System (see below) in 1850 and consolidated it in the conveniently located Chicago river. The river flowed into Lake Michigan which was the source of city drinking water and started causing problems pretty quickly. The first idea was to move the drinking water collection pipe further out into the lake but that only worked as a temporary solution. Typhoid and cholera epidemics in 1885 killed more than a tenth of the population. So they realized it was a bad system and decided to make a change. That change … to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, which continues today to flow away from the lake and westward to the Mississippi … was the largest earth moving project to date and blazed the trail for the construction of the Panama Canal.5
Meanwhile the so called “Chicago System” was considered an enormous success and has been exported to developing nations the world over. I first learned about it from an activist in rural Oaxaca, Mexico who explained how adapting it (sans any sewage treatment plant) for Oaxaca City was quickly poisoning the downstream agricultural food shed of the area. We haven’t learned much.
So … about that Combined Sewer System.
When the early urban sewer systems were being set up in the nineteenth century it was considered expedient to channel all of the city’s water into a single set of pipes – the so called Combined Sewer System – so rain falling (relatively) clean from the sky hits the road, goes into a gutter and immediately mixes with the extra potable water flow from the faucet as you washed your face this morning … and the subsequent toilet flush. Lovely. Bear in mind that you can’t sort water out the way you can sort co-mingled recycling, my friends. So now it all has to be treated at great expense and effort. If you want to know more, go visit your local sewage treatment plant. What a waste. 6
But back to that raindrop. One is fine, and a few cause no problem. Sewer systems contain storm tanks at various points to hold extra water but these are limited and too much rain falling too fast will fill the tanks at which point the sewer system will do “what its designed to do in such circumstances: it discharges raw, untreated sewage into the nearest body of water.” And this happens all the time – usually once a week in the New York sewer system. 7
And how’s that working out for us?
Unfortunately (and kind of amazingly) the systems set up by Bazalgette and his counterparts in other early industrial cities have been rarely updated and barely maintained in the last century. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t begin to cover it. The American society of Civil Engineers gave American waste water infrastructure a D in 2000 and a D- in 2005. The EPA estimates that 50% of our sewer pipes will be “crumbling” and “dangerous.”8 I’m concerned. Are you?