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The History of Water Treatment

The tap water quality that comes out of your facet has come a long way. From boiling water to federal regulations on drinking water , scientists have worked for thousands of years to bring us the water filtration systems we use today. Here is a brief history of water treatment.

The First Water Treatments

Water treatment documentation dates back to ancient Sanskrit and Greek writings in 2000 BC. These writings outline several ways to purify water before drinking it. Their methods include heating water under the sun, boiling water over fire, filtering water through sand , and dipping heated iron into water.

During this time, bad tastes, smells, and appearances created the main motivating factors behind water purification. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that people realized foul water would make them sick.

Water Treatment in Ancient Egypt

About 500 years later (in 1500 BC), the Egyptians used a water purification process known as coagulation. Coagulation involves placing a chemical called alum in water. The chemical separates particles from the water so impurities are easy to remove.

Water Filtration in Ancient Greece

In the year 500 BC, a Greek man named Hipporates invented a new way to filter water. He realized that by placing a sleeve, or cloth bag, over a pitcher of water, he could trap sediment and eliminate odors.

Experiments with Water in the Middle Ages

During the dark ages, experimentation with water treatment took a break. Then, in 1627, Sir Robert Bacon once again began testing ways to purify water. Bacon attempted to remove salt particles from seawater using sand filtration. While most of his experiments proved unsuccessful, he did pave the way for others.

In 1676, Anton van Leeuwenhoek picked up where Bacon left off and invented the first microscope. He used it to look at drinking water and became the first person to discover microorganisms.

The Use of Microscopes and Water Treatment

The discovery of microorganisms sparked the use of new water filtration systems made of charcoal, wool, and sponges. This discovery prompted a revolution of accessible clean drinking water. By the 1800’s, European towns regularly used sand filtration for their drinking water.

It also sparked an awareness of the potential dangers of drinking water. In 1855, epidemiologist Dr. John Snow discovered that cholera, a new disease in London, was waterborne. By looking at the drinking water with a microscope, Snow pinpointed the exact organism that caused cholera. This discovery lead scientists to be more wary of microscopic organisms, or germs, in the water supply.

Water Systems in 1900’s

By the 1900’s, scientists understood how to prevent and stop water contamination. With this under control, they could improve water in other ways. Researchers began creating less-mineralized, softer water. The water softeners they discovered used sodium ions to replace minerals that hardened water. Heavy metals such as lead and mercury could now be easily removed.

The turn of the 20th century saw the first federal regulations for drinking water. The U.S. Public Health Service set a standard for the quality of public drinking water in 1914. After multiple revisions, the Clean Water Act, which maintains the integrity of the water in the U.S., passed in 1972.

Water Treatments Today

In the U.S., the Public Health Service manages the water supply on a state level. They focus on treating water and conducting risk assessments. However, many people still find ways to improve the quality and taste of their own water. Here are a few ways they do that:

  • Water softeners
  • Water conditioners
  • Iron filtration
  • Chlorine injection systems
  • Reverse osmosis

Water treatment evolved from a daily chore to something we hardly think about today. While we don’t have to think about clean drinking water, there are still places around the world that do. The next phase in the history of water treatment is figuring out how to bring clean drinking water to all areas of the world.

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