Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Sewage at the Sea-Side

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AMONG the thousands who go to the sea-side for health and pleasure, few pay any attention to the hygienic conditions under which they are to live for three of the most trying months in the year. The furniture of parlors and size of dancing-rooms and amusement-halls are taken into consideration, instead of finding out how sewage is disposed of and what relations cess-pool drains are having with the wells. Land-owners and hotel-keepers, following the drift of fashion, furnish what their patrons desire, neither side caring apparently how close a connection is established between animal excreta and the food which is eaten, the water which is drunk, and the air which is breathed.

Nor is this carelessness confined to places merely fashionable. In Ocean Grove, a religious resort, no attempt has yet been made to remove fecal accumulations by means of sewerage, or to substitute cleanly earth-closets for the disgusting cess-pool and privy. Hence the wells are polluted by human excreta, and the air smells vilely, particularly during the period of the great open-air camp-meetings.

At these gatherings over twenty thousand people assemble, who congregate together in a comparatively small space. The greater part of this multitude dwell in long lines of camp-tents, closely huddled together, and pay but little regard to hygienic methods. The executive committee of the association owning the place is equally neglectful, as they have made totally inadequate provision for carrying away the excreted material of so many people.

For the purpose of insuring better sanitary conditions than those prevailing elsewhere on the Jersey coast, Asbury Park was sewered, during the winter and spring of 1882, with eleven miles of clay pipes. Unfortunately for the traveling public, this sewerage system was a failure. Constructed in the slap-dash manner that prevails over the country generally, its working illustrated the fact that an imperfect sewer for sewage is worse than no sewer at all.

Why this system should not work well is easily understood by looking at the flat dead level of the Atlantic coast at this point, and learning that, to assist the discharge of sewage-matter into the ocean, the sewers have scarcely a fall of one inch in many hundred feet. Their outlets are built but little above low-water mark; consequently, when they get clogged by the tide, which they do except at low water, their gaseous contents are turned back over the land, to deal out disease and death in as many ways as Panurge had of making money.

Again, the principal outlet of the sewers empties immediately in front of and at the foot of the main street; effluvia from this, during the months of July and August, were emitted in morbific quantities; and, although natural causes prevented any outbreak of virulent types of disease, physicians were kept busy attending cases of fever, cramps, and dysentery. While it is admitted that this sewage-stench per se might not have been the cause of these disorders, yet there is strong probability of it, when it is considered that the sewage of Glasgow, although conveyed in barges over twenty-five miles, to a deep and wide loch out in the country, engendered new types of disease, and converted one of the healthiest sea-side resorts into a pestilential fever-center.

Some attempt at remedying this condition in Asbury was made by erecting ventilators, consisting of vertical wooden pipes, about twelve feet in height. These chimneys, placed upon sites chosen apparently without any attention to vertical or horizontal curves in the system, gave forth such fearful smells that at times the beach in their vicinity was unendurable. One near the principal promenade was abolished upon the insistance of hotel proprietors.

This failure added one more to the list of futile experiments which have been made with tall chimneys, having for their purpose the creation of a strong draught from the sewer. Tried in England, they are said never to have worked satisfactorily.

The placing such ventilators, as well as sewers, in a sandy soil, is always a hazardous experiment. If the principal streets are unpaved, surface-sand is liable to fill the sewer and choke it. And paving will not prevent silting up where there is an insufficient fall to allow hydrostatic pressure to force out incoming waves and tides. When egress of sewer-contents is thus checked, "cela va sans dire" the air is filled with a most distrusting stench.

Unhealthy as this contaminated air is, sea-side visitors incur a more common danger in the pollution of water by sewage. This poisoning is done in many ways—by close proximity of wells to sewer-drains, and by flood-water from rain-storms, which, instead of being utilized, is allowed to flow off along the gutters, sidewalks, and roadways. Across level lands, down through porous sand, this water sinks unchecked into the soil, carrying with it all the filth washed from streets teeming with human life during the hottest months of the year.

Civilization's barbarism makes this the more dangerous through the custom of crowding pig-sties, cow and stable yards, cess-pools, and all dirt-receptacles close to springs, wells, and other sources of drinking-water.

Little or no attention is paid to this dirty practice, on account of the popular belief that filtration through the sand purifies water of the poisonous principles contained in sewage-matter. This idea has been disproved by experiments of the United States Geological Survey in 1881. Results were then ascertained which showed very clearly that sand interposes absolutely no barrier between wells and the bacterial infection from cess-pools and privies lying even at great distances in the lower wet stratum of sand. Professor R. Pumpelly, who conducted the survey, says that filtration of sewage-water, through a great many feet even of sand as well as gravel, fails to free it of its organic impurities and the germs of disease.

In consequence of general ignorance of this fact, even when water is sufficiently impregnated with impurities to have acquired a foul taste, the mass of people will drink it without observation; or only notice it so far as to remark that "good water is never found at the sea-side." The majority drank without hesitation at Long Branch, or simply adulterated the water with wine or brandy, even after investigation had shown that the feeding-springs from which the water supply was drawn were contaminated by soakage from hog-pens and other animal refuse which had been allowed to percolate the soil unchecked.

The careless drinking of water so poisoned was the cause of an outbreak of typhoid fever during the past season at Seabright, a village adjacent to Long Branch, and supplied with water from the same source. Red Bank and Atlantic City were simultaneously afflicted with zymotic and malarial fevers through a similar cause; while Newport, heretofore considered a healthy sea-side resort, had a case of Asiatic cholera, and diarrhœa was almost epidemic. These conditions resulted from imperfect sewer-traps, by which almost every well and cellar in Newport was contaminated, unclean streets, filthy with the dirt of numerous horses, and sewers in a state the worst that could possibly be imagined.

From such causes as these an unusual amount of sickness prevailed during the past season along the whole line of the Atlantic sea-coast.

In these sporadic cases Nature sounded that key-note of warning with which she always precedes an epidemic. If unheeded, another season may witness the usual calamitous results that have invariably occurred before man has been taught that saddest and most difficult of hygienic lessons—how to protect life from filth-diseases.

This problem has been solved in great measure for the hamlet by almost all large cities. Wherever men have congregated in great numbers, plagues have occurred until they have learned to be careful of the disposition of their sewage. Memphis, which is one of the latest instances, after being terribly scourged by yellow fever in 1878, and again in 1879, took the precaution to immediately institute sanitary reforms, which have been followed by the best practical results. The leading features in these improvements were: the cleansing of the city of all objectionable accumulations, the abolition of all privy-vaults, cess-pools, and improperly constructed underground and surface drains, and the substitution of a complete system of sewers and subsoil drainage-pipes. The water-supply was improved, and the streets properly paved.

What has been accomplished by these measures for the proper sanitation of Memphis and other business centers is what remains to be done for the health and comfort of sea-side towns and villages along the Atlantic coast.