Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  10 (1885), 577–84.

Sewage Disposal in Cities

J S Billings, md




Sanitation, Public Health, Putrefaction, Bacteriology, Natural Economy, Disease, Gas Chemistry, Darwinism, Experiment, Medical Practitioners, Statistics, Agriculture, Pollution, Engineering, Engineers, Expertise, Skill

    Discusses the 'best means of disposing of [...] refuse matter, including ashes, garbage, street sweepings, excreta, and water befouled by domestic or factory uses', which is 'one of the most important problems with which a municipality has to deal'. Observes that the 'most important peculiarities' of sewage 'depend upon the fact that it contains a large amount of organic matter, part of which is alive in the form of myriads of extremely minute organisms, and a part of which is dead and in a process of decomposition'. The decomposition wrought by these 'tiny microbe[s]' results in changes in the organic matter that are 'known as fermentation, nitrification, putrefaction, etc.' and their 'importance [...] in the economy of nature we are only just beginning to discover. Life in this world is, as it were, a balancing or seesaw between different organisms, in which each helps the rest—a cycle of actions which are to a certain extent dependent upon each other'. (577) Some of these 'little granules and rods, or micrococci and bacteria', however, are the cause of 'death and disease', and are 'microscopic monsters as it were, producing evil instead of good'. As such, it is so dangerous to keep 'organic matter suitable for the nourishment of such organisms [...] in the vicinity of human habitations' that 'casks of powder or cases of dynamite would be really safer neighbors'. Similarly, constant 'exposure' to the 'gases and effluvia evolved in putrefaction', which are 'characterized by unpleasant odors', 'impairs health gradually, but distinctly, especially in infants and children' (578), and while they are not always 'injurious to health' such 'Unpleasant sights and smells [...] should be avoided and averted as far as possible for the sake of public comfort' (578–79). Notes that the 'scavengers, workers in sewers, and plumbers' who can withstand these foul 'exhalations' are the 'survivors of a process of natural selection' in which 'their power of resistance [...] is strengthened by habit' (578). Reflects that 'Cleanliness is a relative term; the ideas of a Polish Jew of the lower class, of a New England housewife, and of a chemist are very different with regard to this subject, and a glass which all these considered clean would be at once rejected as impure by the experimenter who wishes to know whether the fluid which he places in it is free from living germs' (579). It is 'from observations of the course of certain epidemic diseases, and from comparisons of the death rates of different localities' that 'Physicians and sanitarians have concluded that stored filth, and air or water contaminated by sewage or its products, are dangerous'. Gives a cautious welcome to plans to 'make use' of the 'fertilizing powers' of nitrogen-rich sewage in 'system[s] of sewage irrigation' and 'sewage farming, properly so called', although claiming, in disagreement with the Boston Sanitary Engineer, that at present it is 'cheaper and easier to go West and get a new farm' than to restore an old one using fertiliser made from sewage (581). Rejects 'various storage systems of disposal of excreta, including the dry-earth system, the Chinese and pail systems, and the privy odorless excavating system' (581), as well as the 'Liernur system [in which] the least possible quantity of water is admitted to the pipes designed to convey excreta' (582), but refuses to 'consider the relative merits of this or that particular system of sewerage' (583). In any case, 'No one system is best for all places'. Insists, however, on the necessity of carefully built sewerage systems, for 'Properly constructed sewers are among the most permanent works of the engineer; they should last for hundreds of years, and be planned for the future as well as the present'. Their construction, moreover, should be conducted by the 'best experts obtainable', and, once built, the duty of supervision should be 'given to a skilled engineer'. (584)

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