Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/Sewer-Gas

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THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY.

 

NOVEMBER, 1882.


 
SEWER-GAS.
By FRANK HASTINGS HAMILTON, M. D.

ON the 2d of February last Mr. Charles F. Wingate, sanitary-engineer, read before the New York Academy of Medicine a paper entitled "Practical Points in Plumbing," etc. Before introducing Mr. Wingate, the president, Dr. Fordyce Barker, read a brief paper, relating his personal experience as to the dangerous nature of sewer-gas, and asking for the earnest attention of the Academy to this subject. The reading of Mr. Wingate's paper was followed by a series of experiments, made by Professor R. Ogden Doremus, intended to illustrate the difficulty of preventing the escape of these gases by either water-traps, lead, iron, or earthen pipes. A large number of physicians and surgeons were present, among whom were many who, on account of their practical experience in matters of hygiene, had been invited by the president to take part in the discussion.

Reflecting subsequently upon the great importance of the subject which had been under debate, I prepared and read before the Academy, on the evening of March 16th, a paper entitled "The Struggle for Life against Civilization and Æstheticism." The purpose of this paper was to furnish a résumé of the papers, experiments, and discussions of the February meeting, and to suggest the conclusions which seemed to be authorized, but which the Academy had not attempted to formulate or declare.

Before closing my communication, attention was drawn by me to other matters than plumbing, such, for example, as house sanitation in general and physical hygiene; but which subjects, at my request, were not made matters of discussion on that occasion. My conclusions were given as follows:

If these sanitary engineers, plumbers, chemists, and hygienists, who were requested to take part in the discussion because of their acknowledged scientific attainments, experience, and practical skill, have nothing more to suggest, how is the evil to be successfully met?

With all respect to the distinguished gentlemen, I must say that they have suggested nothing of any importance which is new; nothing that was not known before; nothing, indeed, which has not been tried, and which has not, for one reason or another, proved itself to be either impracticable or insufficient, and in many cases totally inefficient.

My reply to this question is that, in reference to these matters, science has not kept pace with civilization, and that, without concessions on the part of civilization, there is at present no adequate remedy. . . .

I repeat, then, that in order to render pure and innocuous the atmosphere of our houses, whether the sources of its impurity are to be found in our present systems of lighting, heating, or drainage, it will be necessary, first of all, that civilization should make some concessions.

The term "civilization" is here used in its broad and legitimate sense, as including not only mental culture, with progress in science and art, but also the comforts, luxuries, and æsthetics of life, which are its natural and inevitable concomitants. If certain of the latter elements of civilization can not be dispensed with, it will be found impossible, I fear, to contend successfully with typhoid fever, diphtheria, and many other diseases which now contribute so largely to the increase of our mortality rates.

If we limit ourselves to the consideration of the unwholesome atmosphere of our houses—although this does not by any means constitute the only possible or probable source of sickness and physical decay incident to civilization—the concessions demanded, as a condition of the successful application of our present knowledge of the laws of hygiene, are:

1. That all plumbing having any direct or indirect communication with the sewers shall be excluded from those portions of our houses which we habitually occupy. In other words, that it shall be placed in a separate building, or annex.

2. That we return to the open fire-place, or the grate, as a means of warming our private houses.

3. A diminished consumption of oxygen by gas-burners. It is still an open question whether we shall be able to light our dwellings with electricity; but so long as we are obliged to depend upon gas we must content ourselves with light, and not insist upon illumination.

The concessions demanded have been named in the order of their importance. The necessity for each is urgent, but the first admits of no compromise.[1]

The purpose of the present paper is to determine whether, after the citation and careful study of other facts and observations than those laid before the Academy, my conclusions, so far as relates to the matters of sewer-gas and plumbing, can be regarded as defensible.

What is "sewer-gas"?

This term has been employed a long time by chemists, sanitarians, plumbers, and others, to indicate the ordinary emanations from sewers; but recently certain gentlemen have taken exceptions to the term, denying that there is any such thing as sewer-gas "having a peculiar and definite composition." This is undoubtedly true, and it is probable that no intelligent man or educated physician ever thought otherwise.

"What has been called 'sewer-gas' is composed of air, vapor, and gases in constantly varying proportions, together with living germs—vegetable and animal—and minute particles of putrescent matter. In short, it is composed of whatever is sufficiently volatile or buoyant to float in the atmosphere, and in consequence of which buoyancy it is permitted to escape through the various sewer-outlets. The term is, in this sense, well understood; and it is, moreover, just as correct as would be the terms sewer-vapor, or sewer-air, which some have chosen to substitute for it.

It is proper here to add that the offensiveness of odors is no test of their insalubrity, but that the most fatal germs are often conveyed in an atmosphere which is odorless. The absence of unpleasant odors, therefore, furnishes no proof that the air does not contain sewer emanations.

Have we succeeded hitherto in excluding sewer-gases from our houses?

Only those gentlemen who profess to have inquired carefully into this matter, and whose names will be accepted as authority, will be permitted to answer this question.

Colonel George B. Waring, Jr., sanitary engineer, writing for the "Herald," and also the "Mail and Express," under date of April 2, 1882, says: "Few, I imagine, would question the substantial soundness of Dr. Hamilton's position on the question of heating, lighting, and ventilation, and no one probably at all familiar with the subject will question what he says about the effect of the plumbing work of city houses on the life and health of their occupants. From tenement house to palace they are very often, almost universally, disgracefully and dangerously bad. . . . It is quite true that such plumbing work as is to be found in nine out of every ten houses, even in Fifth Avenue, is unsafe, and ought not to be allowed to remain within the same four walls with a family of human beings."

Mr. Charles F. Wingate, sanitary engineer, in his paper read before the Kings County Medical Society, April, 1882, says: "Any one having opportunities for seeing the sanitary defects in the vast majority of city houses, whether occupied by millionaires or mechanics, and whether situated on Murray Hill or Avenue B, can feel little surprise at the statistics of increasing mortality in New York. The constant demand for the doctor's services in so many houses in their normally bad state, and the fact that his services are no longer demanded when they have been put in sanitary condition, tells its own lesson."

Mr. Wingate also intimates to the people of Brooklyn that their houses are in no better condition.

W. K. Burton, Resident Engineer to the London Sanitary Protective Association, writing for "The Sanitary Record" for March 15, 1882, when speaking of the iron drain-pipes of London houses, says: "Either practically every house in London should have its drain unreservedly condemned, or a certain small amount of leakage must he allowed to pass. I do not propose to enter into the question as to what extent an inspector is justified in passing slight defects; but would point out that such faults as are small in extent, are almost universal, and are generally passed by inspectors, do not come strictly under the head of sins of the plumber."

These statements, made by acknowledged experts, render unnecessary any further evidence in support of the belief that we are at present, and have been for a long time, wholly unprotected against sewer-gas. They confirm an almost universal public sentiment also. Whatever may be the explanation, whether this defective condition of our plumbing is due to the ignorance or wickedness of plumbers, architects, or sanitary engineers, or to other causes, the fact is undoubtedly as has been stated, and this is sufficient for our present purpose.

What has been the effect of its admission into our dwelling-houses upon human life and health?

Formerly, medical men and hygienists seemed never to entertain a doubt upon this question. Not until very recently has it been intimated, from any source, that sewers were not, from their very nature and contents, vast reservoirs of noxious gases and vapors. Receiving, as they do in this city, and in many other large cities, the excreta, and more, or less of the offal, animal and vegetable, of almost the entire population, and these masses of filth being often detained in these receptacles to undergo putrefaction in a warm and humid atmosphere, it would seem impossible that their exhalations should not be dangerous to life.

Dr. Fordyce Barker, President of the New York Academy of Medicine, in announcing the pending discussion on the subject of sewer-gas and plumbing, spoke as follows:

One of the avowed objects of this Academy, as expressed in its constitution, is the promotion of the public health. Strictly speaking, all of our scientific work is in this direction, but this meeting is, in a larger sense, devoted specifically to this object. There is not a physician in this city, engaged in active practice, who is not frequently called upon to see disease of various degrees of severity, often resulting in death, which has been caused by a poison. If we can see our patients early enough, we can successfully meet such poisons as arsenic, as corrosive sublimate, as aconite, and all of this class, because we have antidotes which will prevent their effect. But where the poison is introduced into the system so insidiously that the subject is unconscious of its absorption until its effects are produced, then it is not a question of antidotes, but the problem is, How shall we counteract its consequences, and how shall we keep our patients alive until the life-destroying agents have ceased to put in jeopardy the vital powers?

The special poisons to which I now refer are the gases resulting from defective plumbing, to which all classes—the poor occupants of tenement-houses, those who are able to command the necessaries and many of the luxuries of life, and those who live in the most expensive houses, and whose riches can buy everything but health—are alike exposed. None but physicians can know how general this poison is, and how positively it explains much of the disease that they are called upon to treat, and of the many sad deaths which follow.

When I assert that it is a daily experience with me to see persons whose general health is suffering from this poison, as manifested by malaise, loss of appetite and strength, slight febrile symptoms, diarrhœa, physical and mental depression; and that I have seen infants, children, and adults suffering from diphtheria, scarlet fever of a mild type, complicated with this disease and destroying life; those in vigorous health, students in colleges, ambitious and active young men in the professions or in the commercial or financial world, stricken down by typhoid fever, some struggling through the disease and others dying; and that the cause has been demonstrated to be this poison—I only state facts which are common in the experience of all physicians in this city. In some cases this has been the result of ignorance of the very unsanitary conditions which environed them. For example, two young men were stricken down with typhoid fever, one of whom died. They were not acquaintances, but occupied offices in the same building, in the vicinity of Wall Street. On investigation, it was found that there was not a trap in the whole building. In a house in which, but a few months before, several hundred dollars had been expended to put the building in perfect condition, a young man died of typhoid fever, and others of the family became ill, when it was found that a defective waste-pipe was saturating the house with poisonous gas. But such facts as these are so common and so well known to the profession that I need not dwell upon them.

It is the custom of many in this city, whose means will permit them to do so, to take their families for health and pleasure to various summer resorts at the sea-side, the mountains, and other attractive country hotels; but every year, for some time past, some of these places have proved fatal to health, and often to life, by typhoid fever. . . . None but physicians are alive to the fact that many of those living in beautiful and expensive houses in this city are like the inhabitants who dwell at the base of Mount Vesuvius, in a soft, balmy, voluptuous atmosphere, surrounded by vineyards and gardens luxuriant with the olive and the fig and the orange trees, which mask and hide the danger and desolation of the lava and ashes of disease. . . . The physician should never be an alarmist; he never can hoist the signal of danger, except when he sees the forewarning signs of an impending storm. Unfortunately, he never can see the danger from this position until its effects are already beginning to develop as shown by disease.

At tins same meeting Professor Doremus gave us the painful story of the sudden prostration of his two sons, one of whom died, and the other recovered only after a prolonged illness; in both of which cases sewer-gas was ascertained to be the cause of the sickness.

"I would rather," said Professor Doremus, "have exposed my sons to the deadliest poisons in my laboratory, for which we have antidotes, while for the deadly effects of sewer-gas we have no remedy."

But what is the need of multiplying testimony upon this point when it is so abundantly supplied by the experience of every medical man, and, indeed, of almost every intelligent citizen? The history of civilized nations for the last few years is replete with startling examples of valuable lives sacrificed in this manner. From sewer-gas the Prince of Wales nearly lost his life in one of the princely houses of England, and the Duchess of Connaught had to be removed from Bagehot to escape death from the same cause, after about two hundred thousand dollars had been expended to put the house in order on the occasion of her confinement. We have still fresh in our memories the terrible sewer-gas disaster at the National Hotel in Washington, the fatal outbreak at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair-Grounds, the Springfield boarding-school, and Princeton; not to mention many equally signal examples in our own city, in Brooklyn, and in many parts of the United States, in all of which not a doubt could exist as to the cause of sickness and death.

What special forms of sickness or of disease may be caused or conveyed by sewer-gas?

Asphyxia, sudden death, or death occurring in a few hours after exposure. Examples of this variety or degree of septic infection are rare, and have seldom occurred, except when persons have entered the sewers. Now and then, however, ever since sewers were first constructed, occasional reports of such cases have been made through medical journals or other channels.

A general malaise, or dyscrasy, of an undefined character, but indicated by a loss of appetite and of strength, by diarrhœa, nervous prostration, or by a general impairment of health, which conditions are known to predispose to the occurrence of other diseases, and especially to the diseases of infancy and childhood, including diphtheria and scarlatina. It is known, also, as stated by Dr. Barker in the quotation already made, that these conditions of the general system, caused by the long-continued inhalation of sewer-gas, complicate the contagious or zymotic diseases of infancy, from whatever source they have been derived, and render them more intense and fatal.

To be more explicit, sewer-gas fertilizes the human soil, and renders it more capable of receiving and developing the germs of specific diseases.

Infants and children are in general constitutionally better prepared for the reception and development of these germs, excepting, perhaps, the typhoid, than adults.

It has been asked why, if these gases are so poisonous, plumbers do not suffer. The answer is, that they do suffer frequently, and that they would much more often were they not, when exposed, in most cases in the full vigor of adult life and of health. Muhlenberg says that "if the vitality of a rabbit is lowered by the administration of phosphorus, micrococci, which under other circumstances do no harm, increase so rapidly as to be fatal."

This sufficiently explains the immunity which adults usually enjoy, and especially those who are most of the time away from home and in the open air.

Typhoid fever has long been known to be caused by sewer emanations. It is quite true that this is not its only source, but it is probable that in all large cities, where sewer-pipes are connected with the houses, sewer-gas causes more typhoid fever than all other causes combined. In the country, also, and especially in the large hotels at fashionable watering-places, examples of sickness and death from this source are alarmingly frequent.

Diphtheria must be classed among the diseases which in all probability are, in many cases, caused or conveyed by sewer-gas. The testimony upon this point is so well-nigh conclusive that many medical men accept it as an established fact. For myself, I do not entertain a doubt upon the subject; and this is the opinion of Professor Willard Parker, as expressed at the Academy.

In the report of the Michigan State Board of Health for 1881 occurs the following passage:

It is probable that the contagium of diphtheria may retain its virulence for some time, and be carried a long distance, in various substances and articles in which it may have found lodgment. Diphtheria contracted from germs carried several blocks in a sewer may perhaps be as fatal as when contracted by direct exposure to one sick with it. While it is not definitely proved that the germs of diphtheria are propagated in any substance outside the living human or animal body, it is possible that they may be found to be thus propagated.

Dr. Janeway, addressing the Academy, said:

It is hard to distinguish between sickness from sewer-gas and sickness caused by noxious disease-germs conveyed in the sewers. Small-pox may come from germs in the sewers, but no one would attribute it to sewer-gas. In regard to diphtheria, however, it is less plain. The portability of diphtheritic poison is greater than is supposed.

Scarlatina.—Professor Barker declared to the Academy that sewer-gas malaria had often, in his experience, been found to complicate scarlatina, and render fatal an attack which might otherwise have ended in recovery.

Dr. Alfred Carpenter, of London, a well-known physician and sanitarian, has in a paper of considerable length, published in "The Sanitary Record," London, for March 15, 1882, related many examples in which scarlatina was propagated, perpetuated, and intensified by sewer-gas; the result of his careful observations being that in many cases, in order to render the scarlatinous germs which came through the sewers capable of successful inoculation, the patients need to have been exposed for some time to the debilitating influences of the sewer-gas; in other words, as he affirms, a suitable soil must have been created in these persons. In a letter addressed to me, dated Duppas House, Croydon, June 5, 1882, he says: "I have abundance of evidence that scarlatina is distributed by sewers, or rather that the germs which grow it are conveyed with sewer-air. If, however, the constitution of those receiving the germ is not fitted to grow it and to lead to its fructification, no fever will arise, and the germs will abort. It will not develop in ordinary flesh and blood, but requires that the recipient should be in a special state as regards his own blood to enable it to mature."

In addition to the evidence now presented, and which might be greatly multiplied, as to the probability, or, as perhaps most physicians think, the certainty, that typhoid fever, diphtheria, and scarlatina are thus caused or distributed from house to house, there is the negative testimony presented in the fact that these three terrible maladies are seldom seen in those Eastern Asiatic cities where "modern improvements" in plumbing are unknown, and that with us they have increased just in proportion to the extension of these "improvements."

It is quite probable, if not actually demonstrated, that Asiatic cholera is often propagated in the same manner. The length of time its germs survive after being thrown off from the body, and the established fact that the excreta are known to contain and convey the germs, increase the presumption that it may be distributed by the sewers, if indeed it does not render it absolutely certain.

Finally, no good reason can be given why every zymotic disease may not in this manner, at certain times and under certain circumstances, be widely distributed, although no doubt the liability of such distribution must depend much upon the viability of the germs and upon other circumstances.

What are the practical difficulties in the exclusion of sewer-gas where plumbing is extensively distributed through our dwelling-houses and is there at present any ground of encouragement that they will be overcome?

The Water-Traps.—Professor Doremus illustrated to the Academy by experiment that gases would pass through water in water-traps, although there was free ventilation on the opposite side.

The applicability of these experiments to the question of the passage of sewer-gas and bacteria through water-traps has by some been denied, and especially on the testimony of the experiments of Carmichael, of Glasgow, in which experiments sewer-gases passed through well-sealed and ventilated water-traps in only a small amount, and bacteria were excluded altogether.

I am not a chemist, and this question I prefer to leave with those who are alone competent to decide it.

Some experimenters, however, have not obtained the same results as were obtained by Carmichael, Dr. Billings, and others. R. S. G. Paton, Ph. D., Chemist to the Health Department, city of Chicago, having made a series of careful experiments, assisted by B. W. Thomas, President of the State Microscopical Society, and in the presence of O. C. De Wolf, M. D., Commissioner of Health for that city, they have given it as their concurrent opinion that, as at present constructed, water-traps do not prevent the passage of "disease-germs" into our houses. Dr. De Wolf takes pains to especially emphasize the fact of "the readiness with which organic germs pass through the water of a sewer-trap and are thrown off from the free surface into the atmosphere of a room." (See "Report of the Health Department, City of Chicago, April 15, 1881.")

But, although I can not speak as an expert in this matter, it will be permitted me to say that there seems no reason, even if other and conflicting experiments had not been made, why the experiments of Carmichael should be regarded as conclusive. That unwholesome gases did not pass through well-sealed and ventilated traps, at a certain time and under certain circumstances, in sufficient quantity to imperil life, and that organic germs were excluded wholly, furnishes no conclusive evidence that they might not pass through at another time and under other circumstances. The amount of vapor, ah', and gas contained in the sewers is greater at one time than at another. Their elasticity and tendency to escape are varied according to the nature and amount of the gases generated; according to the temperature, which is changed continually where pipes are in use by the alternate flow of hot and cold water; and according as the gases are moved upward with more or less force by the direction and strength of the aerial currents through the drains. In our own city, and in other maritime cities, and upon the sea-coast generally, the action of the tides in obstructing the outflow, and thus driving the contents of the sewers back toward the houses where the pipes terminate, is often enormous, and such as, by the most ample provision for escape through ventilators, can not always prevent a sudden pressure upon the water-traps sufficient to displace their contents, or to force the gas through the water in the form of bubbles, or, finally, to increase the capacity of the water to receive the sewer-gas by absorption.

Muhlenberg says, "The bacillus typhi has been found in drinking water"; and Dr. Janeway, addressing the Academy, said:

Another point is the possibility that much of the typhoid fever does not come from breathing sewer-gas, but from drinking water containing the germs of disease, which have been drawn up into the water-pipes and are taken into the alimentary canal. In a case under my observation several children were sick in a large house. I turned the water on below, and then, turning it on above, the air was sucked into the pipes below. These faucets were over some drain-pipes connecting with closets where diphtheritic stools had been deposited, and the water above, which was subsequently drunk, was thus tainted. This occurs also where there is no trap, or where there is no direct communication with the sewer. In one institution over seventy children were taken with typhoid fever from this cause.

Indeed, that water, especially when not in motion, will absorb gases, including putrefactive and septic germs, is a well-established fact; and it is equally well established that germs will live and multiply in water, and that they will even, in some cases, survive the action of frost upon the water. Germs in a condition of extreme desiccation and apparently long dead will, on being treated with moisture, if other circumstances are favorable, become revivified and developed into their most perfect and active forms.

It being indisputable that germs may be absorbed by water, and that they may multiply in water, it seems irrational that they should not by evaporation, or by the means of minute bubbles generated by decomposition of organic matter in the water, or by agitation of the water, escape into the surrounding atmosphere.

Professor Kerr, in an address before the British Civil and Mechanical Engineers' Society, said:

We know that gas is generated by the decomposition of the decaying matter in sewage when deposited, in however slight a degree, upon any interior surface. What followed? We know this gas has two qualities which are extremely obnoxious: one quality was that it ascended to the highest level by reason of deficient specific gravity; and the second quality was that when it reached the highest level it exercised a pressure, being an extremely elastic gas. He need scarcely point out the effect of these two considerations. When the sewer-gas (a most excellent name, without going into particulars as to whether it should be called gas or vapor; the name sewer-gas carried an idea of offensiveness which was extremely convenient) when the sewer-gas had reached the highest level, it exercised a powerful elastic pressure to force its way out, and succeeded in forcing its way. It got into the houses; and if there were no other grievance, there was this to complain—of that this pestiferous and poisonous gas forced its way from the sewers into our houses, and, of course, reached the vital organs of those who occupied them.

Must we, then, accept as final the experiments made by Dr. Carmichael, and perhaps a few other experimenters? May we safely conclude that the gases and germs contained in the sewers can be effectually excluded by water-traps? That well-sealed water-traps afford some protection can not be questioned; but the experiments of Carmichael seem to me far from having rendered it certain, or even probable, that they insure absolute safety.

The reader will observe, however, that, even if we admit that the experiments of Carmichael establish all that has been claimed for them, it is still none the less a fact that the water-traps give us no protection when they are empty or defective; and examples abound in the experience of almost every plumber, in which the traps are found empty, either in consequence of the direct pressure of the air from below, or of siphonage, or of leakage; the leakage being sometimes due to the erosive action of the gases, to which action the traps are especially exposed, and sometimes to cracks occasioned by contraction and expansion, resulting from the alternate admission of hot and cold water, to settling of the walls, floors, and fixtures. Sometimes, also, large holes are made in the traps or leaden pipes by rats. I have in my possession examples of all these varieties of defective traps, taken from some of the best houses in this city, and the existence of which defects was not suspected until disclosed by the plumber. The traps, to be effective, it is unnecessary to say, must be kept in perfect working order, for this is a dangerous door to be left ajar, even for one moment.

The complete protection of our houses against sewer-gas will not, however, be accomplished when a trap shall be invented which shall be liable to no accidents and shall never fail. The trap is a matter of small consideration compared with the whole amount of plumbing work, of which it constitutes only a fraction.

The Pipes.—Professor Doremus demonstrated at the Academy that gases would pass readily through brick and stone, and through unglazed earthenware, even, in one instance, against a resisting pressure of two and a half feet of water, and in another against the pressure of a column of mercury thirty inches in height. The experience of every practical plumber confirms these experiments. Gases escape more or less readily, also, through iron pipes.

Lead and iron pipes are subject to the erosive action of the gases, and of various reagents. They are also, like the traps, liable to be broken by the settling of walls, floors, and fixtures, and they are occasionally broken by their own weight. The leaden pipes may be eaten by rats; at the jointings, they are believed occasionally to be perforated by galvanic action. In nearly all these cases the holes are at first small, but frequently a large number of these small holes will be found at the same time in different portions of the plumbing. These are the minute perforations to which Dr. Billings probably referred when he said, "there is more danger from a pin-hole in a pipe than from the traps"; for, while it is true that a large proportion of the germs perish for want of a favorable soil, it is equally true that one germ of a malignant type, conveyed into a system fully prepared for its nutrition, is as fatal as a thousand. Colin estimates that one bacterial rod, under favorable circumstances, will produce 281,500,000,000 in forty-eight hours; and that, were it not for the unfavorable circumstances incident to its situation, it would fill the ocean in five days. It is not impossible that this one "pin-hole" might admit the typical bacterium into a typical soil.

Mr. Charles F. Wingate, sanitary engineer, says:

Even the best plumbing will not last for ever, but needs attention. Leaks may occur to permit the admission of sewer-gas from drain-pipes due to defective castings, or to walls settling in houses built on made ground, or from the strain of the alternate expansion and contraction from hot water, or even from the forcing of lead joints by the pressure of steam discharged from manufactories into the public sewer.

A no less serious evil is the corrosion of lead traps or lead waste-pipes, particularly in old houses which have unventilated drains. This may he caused by the action of sewer-gas, so called, or from the use of certain popular disinfecting fluids.

Lengths of pipe have been found completely honey-combed in this way. As such corrosion usually occurs on the upper side of traps or horizontal pipes, it is not easy to detect their presence from the absence of leakage, and the only safeguard is to avoid carrying waste or soil pipes horizontally; also, to extend their upper ends through the roof, and leave them open for ventilation. Lastly, to substitute iron pipes for lead wherever possible, which is now the general rule in all good plumbing practice. . . . Corrosion sometimes occurs at the joints of lead pipes, contiguous to the line of solder, and is attributed to galvanic action created by the contact of the zinc and lead, but as these openings are apt to leak they are more liable to discovery.

It is a good plan to overhaul all plumbing periodically, say once every year or two, to guard against accidents. . . . And here it should be remarked that sewer-gas is created not in the sewers alone, but every inch of waste-pipe in a house, even though used to convey nothing but soapy water or the waste of melted ice from a refrigerator, can, and commonly does, produce foul gases. The worst odors are from just such sources, and they are certainly unwholesome.

Moreover, it must always be remembered that no plumber's work, however complete it may be at first, can be relied upon to remain perfect. ("Medical News and Abstract," November, 1881.)

Says Mr. Collins, in "The Sanitary Record," London, for March 15, 1882:

One hint more with regard to the house and its belongings, worth all the rest: Do not imagine that when structure, drainage, water-supply, and the various appliances appertaining thereto, are left in perfect condition, they will always remain so, and that, unlike every other production, they will last unimpaired for ever, or even that period of "for ever"—a few years.

The best plumbing will not, the experts say, last "for ever"; but, in order to render our houses perfectly safe, it ought to last as long as the house will last, for we can in no other way know when the danger is upon us. "It will not last that period of for ever—a few years," says Mr. Collins; and Mr. Wingate says it should be "overhauled every year to two, to guard against accidents." Mr. Wingate has told us what he means by "overhauling" the plumbing, when he said to the Academy that no inspection of the plumbing of a house was of value unless it was overhauled from top to bottom. In no other way could he give the occupant a guarantee that all was right; because, where one defect was found, the chances were that there were many. This, we are then given to understand, is what should be done "every year or two."

But we may be permitted to ask why the time should be fixed at a year or two? A leak might arise from any one of the many causes enumerated to-day, which did not exist yesterday. Why, then, "to guard against accidents," should not the plumbing be overhauled daily? Absolute security could only in this way be attained. The public is notified, therefore, not by the writer, but by professed sanitary experts, that in this matter the price of safety is eternal vigilance.

In searching for a remedy for defective plumbing and sewer-gas, the public is still further embarrassed by the fact that the several classes of professional experts, to whom it has been accustomed to look for instruction in matters pertaining to house sanitation, seem to have lost confidence in each other, and are heard constantly, and in the most public manner, charging each other with incapacity.

The chemists, apparently, are not agreed. The plumbers have been again and again charged with incompetency, and often with intentional dishonesty, by sanitary engineers, by physicians, and by the almost universal voice of the people, until to-day it is hard to find a man with sufficient courage to utter a word in their defense. "The sins of the plumbers" has become a proverb.

An architect, writing for the "The Architect," London, complains that, by eminent doctors, men of his calling have been "sat upon, blackguarded, lectured, blamed," etc., for their supposed ignorance of matters of this sort; and one gentleman, a sanitary engineer, has said, publicly, that there was "probably only one architect in this city competent to execute the specifications for the plumbing of large houses." The same gentleman did not hesitate to say to the Academy that physicians were regarded by plumbers as their "most wrong-headed customers," and as possessing only "a dangerous smattering" of knowledge upon the subject; the Academy was permitted, also, to understand that he entertained the same opinion; while a distinguished member of the National Board of Health said publicly that he could count upon his five fingers all the sanitary engineers in this country in whom he could place any degree of confidence.

If all that representative members of these several classes say of each other were true, the outlook would be very unpromising. There is, then, no class of professed artisans or scientists concerned in the business of plumbing, architecture, or house sanitation, who can be safely trusted.

It is believed, however, that there is some mistake as to the almost total incompetency of plumbers, architects, sanitary engineers, physicians, and chemists, to discuss and act upon these subjects intelligently. In short, as I have said before, "I am much more charitable to the plumbers and architects than are the public or the sanitary engineers. It seems to me quite probable that most of them are as competent and as honest in their special departments as any other class of citizens"; and I am pleased to see that, so far as the plumbers are concerned, the President of our City Board of Health entertains the same opinion, he having recently declared, according to "The Sanitary Engineer," that they have more scientific knowledge than they are given credit for.

We ought, I think, to regard this mutual distrust and lack of confidence among these various classes as only another evidence of the overwhelming difficulties of the situation, and of the fact, so apparent to all, that we have been defeated in every direction. As, when an army of disciplined soldiers has been signally routed, the people begin to lose confidence in their officers, and the officers fall to charging each other with incompetency, neglect, and treason—so, also, in this case, these murmurs of complaint and of wide-spread dissatisfaction, these mutual criminations and recriminations, imply only a great failure, and not necessarily a dereliction on the part of any one concerned. The odds were against us; and this is what everybody will, sooner or later, come to understand.

The public need not lose confidence in either of these classes. Notwithstanding our present seeming antagonism, which may be due in part to a mutual misunderstanding, we are, as will be seen hereafter, converging steadily and rapidly to the same point. It will be found that we are practically united in our demand that plumbers, architects, sanitary engineers, and physicians, shall acquire more knowledge and skill than they now possess; and that where their united knowledge and skill fail to accomplish the end to which our efforts are at present directed, namely, the exclusion of sewer-gases from our houses, the people shall be urged at once to "to lop off superfluous luxuries"; instructing them also that, in exact proportion as their luxurious distribution of plumbing is diminished, their safety will be increased. They should be informed, at the same time, that, if they are compelled to submit to the presence of plumbing fixtures near their living apartments, they should follow the advice of Professor Doremus, and employ constantly and freely proper disinfectants, of which it is unscientific to say that they merely "disguise the bad odors"; for, if it be true that they do not cause directly the death of all germs, it is nevertheless true that they prevent putrefaction of organic matters, and thus destroy the aliment upon which the germs subsist, and by which they are enabled to multiply.

It would be unjust to say that plumbers, being interested in having the amount of plumbing extended, will be the last to limit its extension. So also, in a pecuniary point of view, are sanitary engineers and physicians interested. But no one, I am certain, will charge either of us with being influenced by such considerations.

Under the present system all that can be said is, that the united skill of the specialists has not, according to their own often-repeated declarations, and as every one knows, succeeded in rendering our houses safe against sewer-gas. We have, indeed, from one source and another, assurances that it can be done; but there is no proof, such as alone can be furnished by a sufficiently prolonged trial, that these assurances can be trusted. A generation has come and gone, thousands upon thousands have died, and looking at our decimated households we may well ask, How many more must be sacrificed to this terrible experiment?

The late rapid increase in the mortality of New York city has naturally caused wide-spread alarm. Last year 88,600 deaths were recorded, against 31,937 in 1880—an increase of twenty per cent. While the large additions to the city's population from emigration and other causes may account for some of this increase, it can hardly explain all of it. Careful observers limit the increase in the population of New York to ten per cent, and estimate the mortality of last year as therefore ten per cent greater than during 1880. The percentage is just equal to the increase in deaths from contagious diseases.—(Charles F. Wingate, consulting sanitary engineer, "Practical Points about Plumbing," 1882.)

The writer proceeds to charge this increased mortality to the sanitary defects of our houses, especially in the matter of plumbing.

The death-rate of our city has continued to increase steadily since Mr. Wingate wrote. In 1880 it was 26·47 per 1,000; in 1881, 31·08; and for the two quarters of 1882, ending June 30th, the rate of mortality had increased to 31·11, with a prospect of a much higher rate for the year, inasmuch as, during two weeks of the month of July, the rate was higher than for the corresponding period of any previous year since 1872.

This increase of mortality has occurred notwithstanding the admitted fact that our streets are in a better condition than they have been for many years. It can not, therefore, be attributed to the unsanitary condition of the streets, as has been the usual practice of newspaper writers in previous years.

Nor does it seem proper to attribute it to our vicious tenement house and apartment-house system, which, no doubt, has its effect in raising our death-rate, but which, according to the reports of our city officials, has in many respects been greatly improved during the last two or three years. Meanwhile, everywhere the plumbing, as it has become older, has necessarily become more imperfect.

A member of the Board of Health, for whose opinion I have great respect, has said to me, that "when we consider the unusual prevalence of contagious diseases, and the large amount of immigration during the first half of the present year, we must admit that sewer-gas alone can not account for the increase in the death-rate over last year." Perhaps not; but it will not be pretended that the deaths of immigrants will alone explain it; and as to contagious diseases, these are precisely those which, according to Mr. Wingate, Drs. Barker and Carpenter, with many others, are most likely to be multiplied and intensified, and thus rendered fatal by sewer-gas. The fact that the increased death rate is chiefly due to the increase of contagious diseases justifies the suspicion that sewer-gas is, to a great degree, responsible for this result.

The President of our Board of Health is reported to have said that "there has been a similar increase, during the last two years, all over the world." It would be impossible to determine this fact, for the reason that a large portion of the world makes no record of death. Probably he said, or intended to say, that such was the fact in the large cities of the most civilized portions of the world; and inasmuch as this has not been a season of general epidemics, and there have been no marked meteorological conditions to which it might be ascribed, and in the absence of any other plausible explanation, it would be quite as fair to attribute it to an extension of "modern improvements" in plumbing as to anything else.

A system of sewerage for the city of Memphis, Tennessee, was commenced January 20, 1880, and completed July 1, 1881. When completed it was found that thirty-three miles of sewer-pipes had been laid, and three thousand five hundred and seventy-nine water closets had been connected with the sewers. On comparing the mortuary records of the year preceding the completion of the work, and before the houses were connected with the sewers, with the year succeeding the completion, it appears that the mortality of the city has materially increased—although neither of these years was a year of epidemic. The deaths from typhoid fever were the same each year; but the deaths from dysentery were nearly doubled, and the deaths from diphtheria nearly quadrupled.

The "system" adopted is approved by many of our best sanitarians; but it was not carried out, in all respects, as recommended and agreed upon, and therefore may not be regarded as a fair test of the value of the peculiar system adopted. But we have the authority of the gentleman who claims to be its inventory, to the effect that "the drainage of houses and their connection with the sewers has been admirably carried out under strict regulations, faithfully executed," and that the system, so far as completed, is "an entire engineering success."

In view of the facts as above stated, there is a sort of grim humor in the letter of a "citizen of Memphis," who says, in confirmation of the value of the work already done, "Memphis is a redeemed city, and we are thinking of putting on airs, and advertising it as a summer resort."

It has already been intimated that those to whom the public has been accustomed to look for counsel upon this and allied subjects do not differ so widely as some have supposed, but that there is actually a very strong convergence of opinion as to what needs to be done.

Professor Willard Parker, one of our most distinguished physicians, after listening to the discussions of the Academy, said: "If I were to build a house, I would not have it connected in any way with a sewer. I would construct a sort of annex." Into which, Professor Parker was understood to say, he would gather all the pipes and fixtures, water-closets, baths, and wash-basins. He further remarked: "I suppose most of you would object to having a vault filled with dead bodies a few yards from your house, and connected with it by a pipe. Yet this is practically what we do. Water is no protection from the poisonous germs which generate and live in this foul air. This matter demands our most careful attention, for we are in a very critical and unhealthy condition."

Colonel George B. Waring, Jr., sanitary engineer, addressing the public through the daily press, gives the following advice: "Let us take no step backward in the essential improvement of the adjuncts of our daily life. Let us only lop off luxurious superfluities, and see that what is really needed is good. . . . There is no doubt that the luxury of a wide distribution of plumbing appliances throughout the whole house has led to a great increase of risk and to a wide distribution of dangerous defects. The use of stationary wash-basins in bedrooms not immediately adjoining soil-pipes is to be deprecated; and everything should be reduced to the simplest elements that will give the necessary sanitary control of the waste matters of the house."

Not long after Mr. Wingate had protested to the Academy against "the foolish fear which prevails regarding the risks to health from so called modern improvements," declaring that there was no need of taking a step backward, a circular was received from the Heath House, Schooley's Mountain, New Jersey, containing a certificate from "Charles F. Wingate, consulting sanitary engineer," a portion of which reads as follows: "I found the plumbing fixtures all placed in an extension, so as to be completely isolated from the rest of the hotel, and with a free circulation of air around them. There are no basins in bedrooms. . . . In short, sanitary considerations seem to have been studied at every point, and this, I am sure, will have due weight with future guests."

It seems fair to assume that an arrangement which Mr. Wingate can conscientiously recommend as contributing to the health and safety of the guests of the Heath House he can conscientiously recommend also to the occupants of any other house, and especially to the occupants of city houses, where the danger from sewer-gas is tenfold greater than at the Heath House.

If I have interpreted their language correctly, one of these distinguished sanitary engineers is substantially in accord with Dr. Parker and myself, and the other is absolutely in accord; and these are the only sanitary engineers, so far as I am informed, who have publicly, and over their own signatures, taken exception to our views.

It seems, however, that the people themselves, without asking the opinions of sanitary engineers, or of any one else, have concluded, in many instances, to "lop off the luxuries," and to practically adopt the measures which I have suggested—these concessions on the part of civilization being subsequently indorsed and approved by both sanitarians and sanitary engineers. As has been seen, the proprietor of the Heath House, at his own instance, placed his plumbing fixtures in an annex.

C. and W. Leland, Jr., proprietors of the Ocean Hotel, Long Branch, announce that "none of the sleeping apartments have water, nor are they connected in any way with water or drainage pipes." Drs. Hunt and Hughes, recognized sanitary experts, have examined the premises, and certify that they regard the arrangements "as a sample of sanitary completeness." The same thing has been done in the lately added portion of one of the largest and most popular hotels in this city, namely, the Sturtevant House; and, about a year since, the Fifth Avenue Hotel "changed the pipe-basins of about fifty of its best rooms for basins with pitchers, to avoid any possibility of complaints on the score of sewer-gas."

Mr. George Harding, of Philadelphia, has erected a very large and elegant hotel on the Catskill Mountains—the "Hotel Kaaterskill"—which is said to have no rival in its construction and completeness, but in which there are no stationary basins, and the plumbing is confined to the rear end of the building.

A gentleman is now constructing a handsome residence in Fifth Avenue, and he informs me that, recognizing fully the danger from sewer-gas, he has placed all those fixtures which he proposes to use at the rear end of his house. He has, however, extended his plumbing throughout his house, because in the case of his death the house may be sold, and some might object to it if it did not contain all of the "modern improvements"; but he has made arrangements to cut off completely all of the plumbing except that which is in the rear of the house, and in this condition it will remain so long as it is occupied by his family.

Mr. John Honeyman, while defending architects from the charge of incapacity made by the doctors, says in the London "Architect," that they were "among the first to point out the dangers arising from the general introduction of water-closets."

"The Sanitary Engineer," describing the "sanitary appliances" in the elegant mansion of W. II. Vanderbilt, recently constructed in Fifth Avenue, says, "As for stationary wash-hand-basins, they are almost unknown, there being but two in the whole house—one in a dressing room or retiring-room off the billiard-room, and one in a private bathroom."

Indeed, stationary basins are now excluded from many of the most fashionable hotels in the country, and, if I am correctly informed, from several public and private houses in this city which I have not mentioned; although most of them continue the more objectionable practice of having the water-closets in the same building with their guests and their families.

The "Medical Record" for July 8, 1882, contains a letter from Dr. Joseph A. Andrews, dated at Hong-Kong, May 9, 1882, giving a description of Canton, "the most characteristic of Chinese towns," in which it is said, "No closed under-ground sewers or drains exist, save a rudely constructed gutter in the center of the street, which carries off the superfluous rain," etc. The contents of latrines are removed in open buckets, generally during the day. And notwithstanding these, with many other unquestionably unsanitary conditions, in a city containing a population of one million, situated in a warm climate, "there is no typhus, rarely typhoid, and none of the other diseases, diphtheria, etc., considered the inevitable consequence of defective sanitation."

Dr. Andrews adds:

The healthiness of the foreign population of Canton is certainly in a great measure owing to the absence of water-closets in the dwelling-houses, which at home are a fruitful source of disease. Sulphureted and carbureted hydrogen gases are evidently not so injurious to health when given off in the open air as when escaping from sewers. Canton, like the whole country, is a city of bad smells, and yet the people do not seem to suffer from them, but, on the contrary, rather like them. The removal of excreta and the disposal of sewer-water is the sanitary problem of the day at home and abread. Our sewers allow the transference of gases and organic molecules from house to house and from place to place. Occasionally, by bursting, leakage, or absorption, the ground is contaminated, and the water-supply is in danger of being contaminated and poisoned; and all these dangers are greater from being concealed. In China, there is at least freedom from one of these dangers. It would certainly seem advisable that our water-closets should he in a projection from the building, with a tube passing to the outer air.

The italics are Dr. Andrews's.

Why did those in authority allow such defective sanitary arrangements? was everywhere asked after the fever at Lord Londesborough's; and this question you heard repeated, regardless of the fact that sanitary arrangements, having such results in this and other cases, were themselves the outcome of appointed sanitary administrations, regardless of the fact that the authorized system had itself been the means of introducing foul gases into houses.[2]—("The Study of Sociology," by Herbert Spencer, p. 3, and note on p. 405.)

Finally, the writer wishes it to be understood that he recognizes the agency of many other conditions than the presence of sewer-gas in dwelling-houses in causing the increased death-rate of large cities; but that, in what he has written, his chief purpose has been to place before his readers the careful observations of scientific and practical men, and to note their conclusions as to the probable responsibility of these agents. In most of the points considered his own opinions have been guided by and subordinated to theirs.

 

  1. "New York Medical Gazette," March 25, 1882.
  2. Of various testimonies to this, one of the most striking was that given by Mr. Charles Mayo, M. B., of New College, Oxford, who, having had to examine the drainage of Windsor, found that "in a previous visitation of typhoid fever the poorest and lowest part of the town had entirely escaped, while the epidemic had been very fatal in good houses. The difference was this, that while the better houses were all connected with the sewers, the poor part of the town had no drains, but made use of cesspools in the gardens. And this is by no means an isolated instance."