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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Drainage and Water Supply

Air and sunshine having been assured for all parts of the house in daily use, the next question must be an unfailing and full supply of pure water. "Dig a well, or build near a spring," say the builders; and the well is dug, or the spring tapped, under the general supposition that water is clean and pure, simply because it is water, while the surroundings of either spring or well are unnoticed. Drainage is so comparatively new a question, that only the most enlightened portions of the country consider its bearings; and the large majority of people all over the land not only do not know the interests involved in it, but would resent as a personal slight any hint that their own water-supply might be affected by deficient drainage.

Pure water is simply oxygen and hydrogen, eight-ninths being oxygen and but one-ninth hydrogen; the latter gas, if pure, having, like oxygen, neither taste nor smell. Rain-water is the purest type; and, if collected in open vessels as it falls, is necessarily free from any possible taint (except at the very first of a rain, when it washes down considerable floating impurity from the atmosphere, especially in cities). This mode being for obvious reasons impracticable, cisterns are made, and rain conducted to them through pipes leading from the roof. The water has thus taken up all the dust, soot, and other impurities found upon the roof, and, unless filtered, can not be considered desirable drink. The best cistern will include a filter of some sort, and this is accomplished in two ways. Either the cistern is divided into two parts, the water being received on one side, and allowed to slowly filter through a wall of porous brick, regarded by many as an amply sufficient means of purification; or a more elaborate form is used, the division in such case being into upper and under compartments, the upper one containing the usual filter of iron, charcoal, sponge, and gravel or sand. If this water has a free current of air passing over it, it will acquire more sparkle and character; but as a rule it is flat and unpleasant in flavor, being entirely destitute of the earthy salts and the carbonic-acid gas to be found in the best river or spring water.

Distilled water comes next in purity, and is, in fact, identical in character with rain-water; the latter being merely steam, condensed into rain in the great alembic of the sky. But both have the curious property of taking up and dissolving lead wherever they find it; and it is for this reason that lead pipes as leaders from or to cisterns should never be allowed, unless lined with some other metal.

The most refreshing as well as most wholesome water is river or spring water, perfectly filtered so that no possible impurity can remain. It is then soft and clear; has sufficient air and carbonic acid to make it refreshing, and enough earthy salts to prevent its taking up lead, and so becoming poisonous. River-water for daily use of course requires a system of pipes, and in small places is practically unavailable; so that wells are likely, in such case, to be the chief source of supply. Such water will of course be spring-water, with the characteristics of the soil through which it rises. If the well be shallow, and fed by surface springs, all impurities of the soil will be found in it; and thus to dig deep becomes essential, for many reasons. Dr. Parker of England, in some papers on practical hygiene, gives a clear and easily understood statement of some causes affecting the purity of well-water.

"A well drains an extent of ground around it, in the shape of an inverted cone, which is in proportion to its own depth and the looseness of the soil. In very loose soils a well of sixty or eighty feet will drain a large area, perhaps as much as two hundred feet in diameter, or even more; but the exact amount is not, as far as I know, precisely determined.

"Certain trades pour their refuse water into rivers, gas-works; slaughter-houses; tripe-houses; size, horn, and isinglass manufactories; wash-houses, starch-works, and calico-printers, and many others. In houses it is astonishing how many instances occur of the water of butts, cisterns, and tanks, getting contaminated by leaking of pipes and other causes, such as the passage of sewer-gas through overflow-pipes, &c.

"As there is now no doubt that typhoid-fever, cholera, and dysentery may be caused by water rendered impure by the evacuations passed in those diseases, and as simple diarrhoea seems also to be largely caused by animal organic [matter in] suspension or solution, it is evident how necessary it is to be quick-sighted in regard to the possible impurity of water from incidental causes of this kind. Therefore all tanks and cisterns should be inspected regularly, and any accidental source of impurity must be looked out for. Wells should be covered; a good coping put round to prevent substances being washed down; the distances from cess-pools and dung-heaps should be carefully noted; no sewer should be allowed to pass near a well. The same precautions should be taken with springs. In the case of rivers, we must consider if contamination can result from the discharge of fecal matters, trade refuse, &c."

Now, suppose all such precautions have been disregarded. Suppose, as is most usual, that the well is dug near the kitchen-door,—probably between kitchen and barn; the drain, if there is a drain from the kitchen, pouring out the dirty water of wash-day and all other days, which sinks through the ground, and acts as feeder to the waiting well. Suppose the manure-pile in the barnyard also sends down its supply, and the privies contribute theirs. The water may be unchanged in color or odor: yet none the less you are drinking a foul and horrible poison; slow in action, it is true, but making you ready for diphtheria and typhoid-fever, and consumption, and other nameless ills. It is so easy to doubt or set aside all this, that I give one case as illustration and warning of all the evils enumerated above.

The State Board of Health for Massachusetts has long busied itself with researches on all these points, and the case mentioned is in one of their reports. The house described is one in Hadley, built by a clergyman. "It was provided with an open well and sink-drain, with its deposit-box in close proximity thereto, affording facility to discharge its gases in the well as the most convenient place. The cellar was used, as country cellars commonly are, for the storage of provisions of every kind, and the windows were never opened. The only escape for the soil-moisture and ground-air, except that which was absorbed by the drinking-water, was through the crevices of the floors into the rooms above. After a few months' residence in the house, the clergyman's wife died of fever. He soon married again; and the second wife also died of fever, within a year from the time of marriage. His children were sick. He occupied the house about two years. The wife of his successor was soon taken ill, and barely escaped with her life. A physician then took the house. He married, and his wife soon after died of fever. Another physician took the house, and within a few months came near dying of erysipelas. He deserved it. The house, meanwhile, received no treatment; the doctors, according to their usual wont, even in their own families, were satisfied to deal with the consequences, and leave the causes to do their worst.

"Next after the doctors, a school-teacher took the house, and made a few changes, for convenience apparently, for substantially it remained the same; for he, too, escaped as by the skin of his teeth. Finally, after the foreclosure of many lives, the sickness and fatality of the property became so marked, that it became unsalable. When at last sold, every sort of prediction was made as to the risk of occupancy; but, by a thorough attention to sanitary conditions, no such risks have been encountered."

These deaths were suicides,—ignorant ones, it is true, not one stopping to think what causes lay at the bottom of such "mysterious dispensations." But, just as surely as corn gives a crop from the seed sown, so surely typhoid fever and diphtheria follow bad drainage or the drinking of impure water.

Boiling such water destroys the germs of disease; but neither boiled water nor boiled germs are pleasant drinking.

If means are too narrow to admit of the expense attendant upon making a drain long enough and tight enough to carry off all refuse water to a safe distance from the house, then adopt another plan. Remember that to throw dirty water on the ground near a well, is as deliberate poisoning as if you threw arsenic in the well itself. Have a large tub or barrel standing on a wheelbarrow or small hand-cart; and into this pour every drop of dirty water, wheeling it away to orchard or garden, where it will enrich the soil, which will transform it, and return it to you, not in disease, but in fruit and vegetables. Also see that the well has a roof, and, if possible, a lattice-work about it, that all leaves and flying dirt may be prevented from falling into it. You do not want your water to be a solution or tincture of dead leaves, dead frogs and insects, or stray mice or kittens; and this it must be, now and again, if not covered sufficiently to exclude such chances, though not the air, which must be given free access to it.

As to hard and soft water, the latter is always most desirable, as soft water extracts the flavor of tea and coffee far better than hard, and is also better for all cooking and washing purposes. Hard water results from a superabundance of lime; and this lime "cakes" on the bottom of tea-kettles, curdles soap, and clings to every thing boiled in it, from clothes to meat and vegetables (which last are always more tender if cooked in soft water; though, if it be too soft, they are apt to boil to a porridge).

Washing-soda or borax will soften hard water, and make it better for all household purposes; but rain-water, even if not desired for drinking, will be found better than any softened by artificial means.

If, as in many towns, the supply of drinking-water for many families comes from the town pump or pumps, the same principles must be attended to. A well in Golden Square, London, was noted for its especially bright and sparkling water, so much so that people sent from long distances to secure it. The cholera broke out; and all who drank from the well became its victims, though the square seemed a healthy location. Analysis showed it to be not only alive with a species of fungus growing in it, but also weighted with dead organic matter from a neighboring churchyard. Every tissue in the living bodies which had absorbed this water was inflamed, and ready to yield to the first epidemic; and cholera was the natural outcome of such conditions. Knowledge should guard against any such chances. See to it that no open cesspool poisons either air or water about your home. Sunk at a proper distance from the house, and connected with it by a drain so tightly put together that none of the contents can escape, the cesspool, which may be an elaborate, brick-lined cistern, or merely an old hogshead thoroughly tarred within and without, and sunk in the ground, becomes one of the most important adjuncts of a good garden. If, in addition to this, a pile of all the decaying vegetable matter—leaves, weeds, &c.—is made, all dead cats, hens, or puppies finding burial there; and the whole closely covered with earth to absorb, as fresh earth has the power to do, all foul gases and vapors; and if at intervals the pile is wet through with liquid from the cesspool, the richest form of fertilizer is secured, and one of the great agricultural duties of man fulfilled,—that of "returning to the soil, as fertilizers, all the salts produced by the combustion of food in the human body."

Where the water-supply is brought into the house from a common reservoir, much the same rules hold good. We can not of course control the character of the general supply, but we can see to it that our own water and waste pipes are in the most perfect condition; that traps and all the best methods of preventing the escape of sewer-gas into our houses are provided; that stationary or "set" basins have the plug always in them; and that every water-closet is provided with a ventilating pipe sufficiently high and long to insure the full escape of all gases from the house. Simple disinfectants used from time to time—chloride of lime and carbolic acid—will be found useful, and the most absolute cleanliness is at all times the first essential.

With air and water at their best, the home has a reasonable chance of escaping many of the sorrows brought by disease or uncertain health; and, the power to work to the best advantage being secured, we may now pass to the forms that work must take.

Taken from:

Adapted to Domestic Use or Study in Classes

Copyright 1903
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