Love That Dirty Water?

by Christopher Laffey on February 21, 2014

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

When I woke up this morning I took a hot shower, and on my way out the door I filled up my water bottle from the sink. I’ve been drinking tap water for most of my life and generally don’t think twice about it. I am fortunate enough to come from a developed part of the world, and I live in a city ranked 3rd for the cleanest tap water in the United States. This is something many of us take for granted. The fact that we even have running water, let alone that it is clean and safe to drink, gives us an incredible advantage in life.

In this country, we have national regulations for the quality of water that flows through public water systems. These regulations protect public health by limiting the contaminants in our water. We are incredibly privileged to have the resources to determine which water contaminants may be harmful to human health and purify the water so that it is safe for drinking and bathing. In many parts of the world, often not so far away, water regulations are less stringent, if present at all. People in some places are not quite so fortunate, and are often subjected to harmful pollutants from the water sources they have available.

Take Mexico for example. 20% of Mexico’s wells are found in Guanajuato, and they are sinking up to three meters deeper into the earth every year. As a result, the water pumped from them is of continually worsening quality. Heavy metals from the rock at the deeper levels pollute the water, and research is not quite up to speed with how to decontaminate it. Some residents, those who are able to do so, are leaving Guanajuato due to the shortage of clean water. It’s unfortunate, but without enough pollutant-free water, the quality of health and overall standard of living is significantly decreased.

If we move to sub-Saharan Africa, as recently as 2004, only 16% of people had access to drinking water at home (and “home access” generally means a single tap in the house or yard). Notice I didn’t say access to clean drinking water. Often the water from these taps is contaminated for one of several reasons. Financial restraints limit water testing and proper maintenance of water sanitation facilities; attention is more often given to the quantity of water available, rather than the quality. Many children die from dehydration or malnutrition resulting from a diarrheal illness. These illnesses can be prevented with bacteria- and pollutant-free drinking water and proper hygiene.

So is the outlook for underdeveloped areas of the world bleak? I hope not, and think that with the help of foreign aid, many of these areas can attain sustainable clean water systems. There are a number of humanitarian organizations that fundraise, do research and development, and implement self-sustaining water systems, ranging from rainwater collecting systems to self-sustaining, sun-powered wells. A group of engineering students at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ developed a system that is essentially a big barrel with a filter. It is designed to transport up to 30 gallons of water easily by pushing a barrel with a giant handle attached. The water is filtered right inside the barrel as it is rolled back home. The simplified transport of a larger quantity of water helps provide a family with clean water and significantly reduces the amount of time spent collecting water from a source that is often up to a mile away from home.

What do you think about the idea of having to walk a mile in the heat for access to running water that may not even be clean? Students and professionals alike are constantly researching new ways to help our brothers and sisters who live in less than desirable environments and implementing innovative strategies and solutions to the struggle to maintain at least a basic level of public health across the globe.

When you live somewhere like Boston, access to clean drinking water probably is not a concern. But what would you think about taking a dip in the Charles River, or eating fish caught from it? If you’re familiar with the Charles, you probably just cringed a bit. Even in somewhere as developed as Boston or Cambridge, that river dividing the two cities poses a health threat due to bacterial contamination from increased levels of phosphorous in storm water runoff. Fortunately, the Clean Charles River Initiative has made the river safe for recreational boating and swimming since 1995. If you want an idea of the progress that can be made over time, in ’95 the Charles was considered safe for boating 39% of the time and for swimming 19% of the time, and in 2006 it was safe for boating 90% of the time and for swimming 62% of the time. When these efforts get started, they can make really steady progress toward improving public health and safety. My living room overlooks the Charles, and I see boats in the river every day (when it’s not frozen).


Efforts like these are so important to our global public health. Maintaining the environment so that we can live safely is of utmost importance. Without our health, we have nothing. While the 1960’s rock band the Standells might “love that dirty water,” I’m really glad efforts have been made to clean it up, because Boston, you’re my home.




Chris Laffey is a student at Boston University’s College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College studying health science with a minor in business administration and management. He is a Student Health Ambassador for BU’s Office of Wellness and Prevention Services and instructs swimming and lifeguarding at the Fitness and Recreation Center. His health interests include substance abuse, sexual health and social well-being.


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