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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Morris calls for action on water supply

Dr. Robert Morris decried America's water treatment system and urged students to help the developing world gain access to clean water in a Cohen Auditorium talk Tuesday night.

Morris, a researcher who taught at Tufts University School of Medicine from 1996 to 2002, spoke about the history of the fight for clean drinking water and the resistance advocates have encountered.

All members of the Class of 2012 received a copy of Morris' book, "The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink," this summer as optional pre-Matriculation reading.

The lecture ranged from the present day threats against the American water supply to the more pressing problem of clean drinking water availability in many developing nations.

Morris devoted a good portion of the first part of the lecture to John Snow, the founder of epidemiology, who took on London's cholera epidemic in the 19th century.

Morris highlighted Snow's struggles against conventional wisdom and the political establishment, both of which refused to believe Snow's claims that cholera was waterborne and nearly undetectable. The common understanding was that the disease was airborne.

Morris tied the status-quo resistance that Snow encountered to entrenched problems and limitations in the United States' current water-treatment system. Morris explained that the systems of treating water allow impurities — such as the byproducts of chlorine disinfectant added to the water, traces of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals — remain in the water.

As a result of government inaction, Morris said, unregulated chemicals, including rocket-fuel ingredients, are detected but allowed to remain untreated in the nation's water supply.

"The shocking thing to me … was the fact that these water treatment plants were testing for drugs in our drinking water, were finding them and were then deciding not to tell anybody," Morris said. "Even when we treat sewage … we're not really trying to make pure water, and we certainly aren't treating it to remove chemicals."

Much of the blame for the continued existence of potentially harmful particles in the water supply falls on the deteriorating and outdated system, Morris said.

"When it comes to water treatment, we have a massive infrastructure that is old and falling apart and that relies in large part on hundred-year-old technology" such as sand filters and chlorine purification, Morris said.

That same infrastructure — from treatment to distribution — is "falling apart under our feet," Morris said. The refusal to sacrifice in the short term, however, ensures lingering problems.

Replacing and repairing the necessary amount of pipes in the nationwide system could cost an estimated $1 trillion through 2040, Morris said.

Morris drew parallels to the fight against global warming, calling the drinking-water issue "an inconvenient truth at odds with money and old ways of thinking."

He added, "We're not going to know until it's way too late whether the theories of climate change are right … but since the science is observational, there are ways to dismiss and deny it, and it's far easier [to do this]. And that's certainly the case with a lot of the threats related to drinking water."

Morris stressed that he does not favor using bottled drinking water over tap water, due to the high environmental costs of shipping and plastic. Rather, he pushed for improving the tap-water system.

Changing the subject, Morris pointed out that the drinking water issues in developed nations like the United States pale in comparison to those of the developing world. The lack of access to a clean water supply is responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths everyday worldwide, said Morris, calling this "a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions."

He ended the lecture with a call to action and reform on water-related issues worldwide, warning that the consequences of inaction would be grim.

"The moral issue of our time is the environment and our relationship with it," Morris said.

For some in attendance, both Morris' book and the lecture were a wake-up call.

Freshman Lori Fingerhut said reading the book shed new light on a topic most people overlook. "I don't normally associate water with things that are dangerous or could even kill you," she said, adding that she was "definitely" more concerned about the campus water supply as a result.

Though the book was only given out to freshmen, the lecture attracted sophomores and upperclassmen as well. A school-wide e-mail invitation to the lecture reached sophomore Ryan Orendorff, and he decided to attend the lecture.

"[Clean water] is an issue more people need to be aware of," he said.