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What is Water Treatment?


Water Treatment Information and History

Throughout history, water treatment has concerned civilizations as they establish themselves around water sources. While the importance of ample water quantity for drinking and other purposes was apparent to our senses through appearance, taste and smell, an understanding of drinking water quality was not well known or documented.

During the mid to late 1800s, scientists gained a greater understanding of the sources and effects of drinking water contaminants, especially those that were not visible to the naked eye. In 1855, epidemiologist Dr. John Snow proved that cholera was a waterborne disease by linking an outbreak of illness in London to a public well that was contaminated by sewage. In the late 1880s, Louis Pasteur demonstrated the "germ theory" of disease, which explained how microscopic organisms (microbes) could transmit disease through media like water. As a result, the design of most drinking water treatment systems built in the U.S. during the early 1900s was driven by the need to reduce turbidity, thereby removing microbial contaminants that were causing typhoid, dysentery, and cholera epidemics. To reduce turbidity, some water systems in U.S. cities (such as Philadelphia) began to use slow sand filtration.

Since their establishment in the early 1900s, most large urban systems have always provided some treatment, as they draw their water from surface sources (rivers, lakes, and reservoirs) which are more susceptible to pollution. Larger systems also have the customer base to provide the funds needed to install and improve treatment equipment. Because distribution systems have extended to serve a growing population (as people have moved from concentrated urban areas to more suburban areas), additional disinfection has been required to keep water safe until it is delivered to all customers. Today, filtration and chlorination remain effective treatment techniques for protecting U.S. water supplies from harmful microbes, although additional advances in disinfection have been made over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, improvements were made in membrane development for reverse osmosis filtration and other treatment techniques such as ozonation. Some treatment advancements have been driven by the discovery of chlorine-resistant pathogens in drinking water that can cause illnesses like hepatitis, gastroenteritis, Legionnaire's Disease, and cryptosporidiosis. Other advancements resulted from the need to remove more and more chemicals found in sources of drinking water.

According to a 1995 EPA survey, approximately 64 percent of community groundwater and surface water systems disinfect their water with chlorine. Almost all of the remaining surface systems, and some of the remaining ground systems use another type of disinfectant such as ozone or chloramine.

Many of the techniques used today by management plants include methods that have been used for hundreds and even thousands of years. However, newer techniques such as organoclay are also being employed by some modern facilities.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academy of Engineering named this technology as one of the most significant public health advancements of the 20th Century. Moreover, the number of techniques and combinations of techniques, developed is expected to increase with time as more complex contaminants are discovered and regulated. It is also expected that the number of systems employing these techniques will increase due to the recent creation of a multi-billion dollar state revolving loan fund that will help upgrade or install new facilities.


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