If you had to guess at the greatest medical advance since 1840, what would you say? Antibiotics? Vaccines? Advanced surgical techniques? While all of those are definitely significant advancements and improvements in medical science, there's something even more important and infinitely more ingrained in our daily lives - plumbing. The development of clean water supplies and safe sewage disposal, also nicknamed "the sanitary revolution", is possibly the single most significant factor in maintaining good health. This lines up with the views of our founder:
"When you consider the contributions that plumbing and sanitation make to the quality of all of our lives, then much of the other things that we do just seem so much less significant."
However, in the developed world, sanitation and plumbing are often taken for granted. That such an attitude can take hold in a society that has safe and effective sanitation only proves its significance: we suffer so little from waterborne disease that we can forget about it. Tragically, this is not the case for all. The UN estimates that 1.5 million children around the world die each year as the result of poor sanitation. Not only are these deaths preventable through improved sanitation, but a full 10% of the global disease burden would also be wiped out if such improvements were made.
It may be hard to believe, but over a billion people around the world do not have access to a toilet or latrine. This results in the practice of open defecation, creating the perfect environment for the spread of disease. When people go outside in the open, waste will find its way back to them. A host of diarrheal diseases are possible when pathogens present in human feces inadvertently make their way into the stomach. Such diseases are the second leading cause of death in children under 5. Though cheap and effective treatments have cut the number of diarrheal deaths in half, severe cases are still common, with the best (and perhaps only) cure being prevention through better hygiene and sanitation.
These facts and figures are a grim but powerful illustration of the importance of plumbing and sanitation. With proper infrastructure and practices, countless lives could be saved, and the quality of life for a vast number of people would be dramatically improved. All we need to do is take a look around our own country to see the immeasurable benefits of plumbing.
However, no system is safe from failure, and plumbing systems need to be maintained. As new research is conducted, we must also adapt to new knowledge and standards. From water quality, to leaks, to lead, there are a number of health-related plumbing concerns in the United States, and a number of ways to address them.
Plumbing Maintenance for Good Health
A popular concern lately is lead. A heavy metal, lead has been utilized in plumbing since the Romans. These days, we've come to understand the many detrimental effects of lead poisoning, and legislation has progressed with this new knowledge. You've likely noticed the "Lead-Free" designation on many plumbing products over the past few years, from pipes, to fittings, to fixtures. Further information on lead and new legislation can be found on our lead-free products page.
Leaks & Mold
Have you checked for leaks lately? More than just a costly and wasteful nuisance, leaks can easily lead to mold. The health problems that can result from mold infestations are largely respiratory, range from mild to severe, and can be infrequent or chronic. Beyond checking for leaks, we recommend a professional inspection of your home should you have any suspicion of mold growth, as well as a doctor's visit if anyone in your home is experiencing mysterious respiratory symptoms.
Of all the burn incidents in the United States, 20% are due to hot water scalding. And it's not just the burn that can happen: the shock of being scalded can cause slips and falls, broken bones, and even heart attacks. The most vulnerable are children and the elderly, but with hot enough water and without proper safety measures, anyone can be seriously burned in a matter of seconds. Legislation in many states, as well as the Uniform Plumbing Code, calls for the installation of anti-scald devices, which are set to allow only water at or below a certain temperature to exit your fixtures.
You might think lowering the temperature setting on your water heater would solve the problem, and while that technically might be true, bacterial growth in your water heater becomes an issue at temperatures below 135°F, according to the American Society of Sanitary Engineering. The Legionella bacteria is most common, and can result in a severe form of pneumonia called Legionnaire's Disease. For the best protection against both burns and bacteria, use anti-scald valves with all of your fixtures and keep your water heater hot.
Wastewater Backup & Cross-Contamination
Air gaps and backflow preventers are used to ensure that wastewater from fixtures or the drain-waste-vent system does not make its way into the water supply. There are two ways these "cross connections" can happen: backpressure and back-siphonage. Backpressure occurs when the pressure downstream is greater than the supply pressure. This can be caused by temperature increases in boilers, pumps, or a drop in supply pressure. The downstream water, which could be contaminated, can then be forced back through your water supply.
Back siphonage occurs when there is a significant drop in water pressure in the supply line. This can happen when a water main breaks, or when a fire hydrant is in use. The drop in pressure creates a vacuum, which can draw contaminated water from any number of sources back into the water supply. Sources of contamination include toilets, swimming pools, irrigation systems and even garden hoses. Should the end of your hose be in a puddle, watering a garden, or connected to an attachment for spreading fertilizer or pesticides, all of that could be sucked back through the hose and end up coming out of your kitchen faucet. While this is not a common occurrence, it is easily possible, and the health consequences could be severe.
Air gaps utilize a physical space between wastewater sources and the water supply to eliminate the possibility of a cross-connection, but they are not always feasible. Other types of devices protect against backflow by mechanical means. Vacuum breakers are a common prevention device most often used with hose bibbs, laundry/utility sinks, handshowers and other fixtures, and use different designs depending on the installation. These are used to protect against back-siphonage only.
Double check valves feature spring loaded valves which close when water flows the wrong way. With two valves, a better seal is created, and there's a safeguard in case one happens to fail. These can be used for both back-siphonage and backpressure situations.
Even safer than double check valves are reduced pressure zone backflow preventers. Like the former, they feature two check valves and two shut-off valves, but also have a pressure differential relief valve in between that keeps contaminated water from breaking through the check valves.
To prevent sewage backups from contaminating your home, a backwater valve can be installed on the sewer line itself. These are one-way valves with a hinged flapper: water flowing the wrong way forces the flapper to seal off the line, keeping waste at bay. These are especially important if you happen to occupy the lowest residence on a sewage line, as a major backup could force the rest of the line's sewage to flow down to your home.
Should you be hooked up to a septic tank, keep an eye out for problems. Know where the leach field is, and note if there's any particularly dense and green areas. Soggy areas and that unmistakable smell are other signs something is wrong. These are contamination hazards, especially for children and pets. Signs may be present in your home, as well: slow drains, gurgling and smells might also indicate a problem with the system. A failed system can contaminate groundwater, wells, and nearby water bodies. The best way to avoid this is to know how to use and maintain your septic system, and to avoid using bacterial additives as a substitute for regular servicing.
Plumbing and health are intimately linked. Those of us in the developed world are lucky to have an infrastructure in place that largely guarantees our health, comfort, and dignity. It's important for us to never take this for granted, to always work to educate ourselves and others about the importance and operation of these systems, and to do our very best to maintain them. As evidenced by many millions around the world, our health and comfort are not implicit rights, but privileges that can exist only if we continue to work at them.