“Cross the meadow and the stream and listen as the peaceful water brings peace upon your soul.” ~ Maximillian Degenerez
Recently I decided to get a new scale for the bathroom, and being easily impressed by technology, I selected one with several assessments aside from weight. This included measures for muscle weight, bone weight, BMI, and, interestingly enough, a percentage of bodyweight comprised of water. Mine generally runs between 49.8 and 51%, which is low, as adult males should have around 60% (55% for women).
Water, as any 8th grader will explain, is of utmost importance to living things. Depending on species, some animals owe 90% of their body weight to water. The human brain is comprised of about 70% water, and the lungs somewhere around 80%. That’s a lot of water. At 190 pounds with water comprising about 50% of my body weight, 95 pounds of me is water. At 8.34 pounds per gallon, on an average day, I contain over 11 gallons of water! No wonder I have to go to the bathroom at 2 AM! Every day.
As I calculated my water weight, I thought about another water-related issue; how many people lack access to clean water. As an epidemiologist, I am trained and educated to prevent illness or disease, and to consider the environmental as well as biological, psychological, and cultural contributors to those diseases and illnesses. Environmental factors are responsible for a majority of infectious disease, and a good deal of the chronic ones as well.
For example, we know that polluted drinking and cooking water is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths world-wide from diseases like cholera, and that clean drinking water goes hand-in-hand with adequate sanitation. We also know that about 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet, and about 783 million people do not have access to clean drinkable water. Nearly 2.4 billion people, or one in three, lack access to adequate sanitation; as a result around 7 million people die every year from disasters that effect water access and water-related diseases including Trachoma, Amebic dysentery, Cholera, Giardiasis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and E, Lassa fever, Guinea worm, and Hook worm. It might come as a surprise that a substance so fundamental to life on Earth would be so squandered, misused, and wasted.
Before you think that this is a problem limited to far-flung places like Africa or Southeast Asia, even a nation as undeniably wealthy as the United States has not always considered water cleanliness, or even water conservation, as being anything so important as commercial profit. From Texas to Tennessee, public water sources n recent years have been found to have as high as 30 times the federal limit of lead. About 4 million Americans get water from small water source suppliers who did not bother with the required tests, and did not conduct the tests properly, in direct violation of federal safe drinking water laws. These tests are necessary because without them, regulators of the water utilities do not know if the water is clean, and the people end up drinking unsafe or polluted water. A recent investigation found that over 2,000 communities the US skipped the required and mandated lead testing on more than one occasion. Hundreds of these repeatedly failed to properly test for lead for five or more years.
We should not be that surprise by these findings. Placing profit ahead of people has a long and proud tradition in America, going back to the 18th century, and this greed has had a direct impact on the health of Americans and their drinking water, then and now.
Back in 1799, Alexander Hamilton and his associates in the Bank of New York and New York Branch of the First Bank of the United States monopolized the banking industry. Several other groups had attempted to break Hamilton’s stranglehold on banking, but being so well politically connected, the Bank of New York had little trouble squeezing out competition. Much of the city was clustered together in overcrowded neighborhoods, and Manhattan was no exception. The residents of Manhattan were clustered on the southern end of the island, and the drinking water was said to have been “horrid, smelly, and filled with effluence.” The people clamored for clean, or at least cleaner drinking water. Something must be done.
Following an epidemic of yellow fever that swept the city, a group of investors calling themselves the Manhattan Company formed with the magnanimous purpose of providing clean water to lower Manhattan, to end the suffering of the people who had little or no access to clean water. Aaron Burr (Who would later duel with, and shoot, Alexander Hamilton) founded the company, and Burr’s brother-in-law, Dr. Browne, suggested the ills suffered by the residents of Manhattan were caused by polluted drinking water (on this he was correct), and that residents that were clustered around lower Manhattan could be supplied with fresh water piped in from the then pristine Bronx River.
While the city had planned on designing, building, and maintaining the water system, Burr and his associates campaigned for the privatization of the project, suggesting that a private company could do the job better and cheaper. The charter for the Manhattan Company to build and maintain the water system was granted; thanks to Burr’s influence, the charter stated that any surplus capital not used in the water system could be used for “banking transactions.”
While the original plan would cost upwards of 2 millions dollars, and would have provided a significant population with clean drinking water, it seems clear that the company’s true focus from the beginning was in becoming part of the banking industry in New York. Although the original construction plans called for clay pipe, to bring the water from the Bronx River located miles way, the company used cheap materials such as hollow logs, and piped water from dug wells and cisterns erected in nearby buildings in the congested areas of Manhattan where sewage was allowed to mix with drinking water. The Bronx River impoundment project was at first delayed, then ignored, and eventually forgotten.
“What made New York a prosperous port – its deep saltwater rivers – made its drinking water lousy. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Manhattan’s water was already infamous: there was too little of it and what little there was tasted terrible.”
~ Jill Lepore
While the Manhattan Company had originally raised over 2.2 million dollars to construct the water delivery system, only about one hundred thousand dollars would be spent on the project. The rest of the funds were used to start the Manhattan Company Bank. In 1808 the Manhattan Company sold its waterworks to the city for 1.9 million dollars and turned completely to banking. To maintain the illusion it identified as a water company as late as 1899. True to form, the Manhattan Company maintained a Water Committee which yearly attested that, true to its founding charter, no requests for water service had been denied. Considering the quality of the water, this seems to have been an accurate assessment. Within the first few years, The Manhattan Company Bank made loans to Burr and other insiders for over $60,000. Meanwhile the city’s water supplied continued to grow worse. Eventually, a real water system was designed and implemented, but before several cholera epidemics took thousands of lives.
The Bank that had started under the guise of providing clean water to citizens of Manhattan would eventually merge with Chase National Bank in 1955 to become Chase Manhattan. Then in 1996, Chase Manhattan was acquired by Chemical Bank, who retained the Chase name, to form what was then the largest bank holding company in the United States, before acquiring J.P. Morgan & Co. in 2000 to form JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Just think, it all started with the need for clean water, the promise to improve the health f the citizens, and the greed that so often seems to permeate from such things.
Today we know how critical clean drinking water is to health. Keeping the body fully hydrated is essential for heart health; when the body becomes dehydrated, the blood thickens causing resistance to blood flow. This results in elevated blood pressure. Dehydration can also lead to a rise in blood cholesterol as the body attempts to prevent water loss from the cells. When you combine high cholesterol and high blood pressure, there is a significantly elevated risk of coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Dehydration can also lead to an increased risk of obesity, a condition that is associated with type 2 diabetes. When combined with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a condition known as Metabolic Syndrome can occur. Dehydration can cause issues with the kidneys, infections of the bladder, and kidney stones.
But these conditions can be avoided by drinking two 8-ounce glasses of water before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Not only does proper hydration keep you healthier, it can help keep weight off for at least a year. In the end, regularly drinking adequate amounts of water speeds up our metabolism and makes us feel more “full” while promoting good physical, mental, and emotional health. That is of course, provided we have access to it, and today, even in America, millions of families do not.
Because of political corruption, corporate greed, or shortsighted practices, tens of millions of American citizens lack clean drinking water. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, many have “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”