July 7 – What A Stench!

Today’s factismal: In 1855, Michael Faraday wrote a letter to the editor about pollution in the Thames River.

We often think of pollution as being a modern problem, but the truth is that the world is a lot cleaner now than it used to be. Though the Cuyahoga River did famously catch fire in 1969 (and at least a dozen times before that), it and other rivers in the USA have since been cleaned up and now support vibrant ecologies. Air pollution has decreased over the past three decades (with the notable exception of CO2), and ground water contamination is less common than ever.

But in the 1800s, things seemed to be headed the other way as the Thames River demonstrated. Thanks to a rapid increase in industrialization coupled with a laissez-faire approach to waste treatment (which at the time mostly meant “dump it in the river and hope it doesn’t float”), the amount of sewage in the Thames River had jumped sharply. In addition to the offal, blood, and manure being put into the river by meat packers, there was runoff of dyes containing lead and other heavy metals from the fabric makers, and (worst of all) the combined effluent from more than a million people who had toilets but no plumbing in their homes.

A political cartoon showing Faraday giving his card to the river Thames (Image courtesy Punch)

A political cartoon showing Faraday giving his card to the river Thames
(Image courtesy Punch)

In 1855, the well-respected researcher Michael Faraday wrote a letter to the Times about the state of the Thames. (It is almost a shame that he wrote only once; if he had written nine times more, then we could say that “Faraday wrote ten times to the Times about the Thames”.) And just three years later, a combination of a heat wave and drought would create what the British called with characteristic understatement “The Great Stink”. These events led to the development of a modern sewer system in London which then created a decrease in both the odor and (more importantly) the number of cholera deaths.

Of course, getting rid of pollution isn’t something that just happens. It takes a dedicated group willing to report on the water quality of their local stream, river, or wetland. If that sounds like something that you’d like to do, then why not join one of these programs?
Florida LAKEWATCH
Georgia Adopt-A-Stream
Klamath Riverkeeper
Loudoun Stream Monitoring
Missouri Stream Team Program
OPAL Water Survey (England)

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