HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Water Chlorination and 12 Other Lifesaving Innovations That Rarely Get Credit

In an interesting article from US News, a series of innovations is highlighted as revolutionizing health and sanitation for people all over the world.  But although these innovations are largely attributed to successfully improving the quality of living for people, might they also be attributed to creating inadvertant health risks?  Adam Voiland writes,

Drinking_waterOn Sept. 26, 1908, Jersey City, N.J., made public-health history when it became the first American city to chlorinate its drinking water supply. Had other municipalities not followed suit, the nation's drinking water might still be swirling with life-threatening bacterial and viral pathogens, such as cholera and typhoid. After Jersey City added chlorine to its Boonton Reservoir, deaths caused by waterborne disease plunged. The death rate from typhoid fever, for example, fell by more than 92 percent between 1906 and 1926, city records show. "There's no question that chlorinating our drinking water was one the greatest public-health advances our nation has seen," says Joan Brunkard, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In honor of chlorination's 100th birthday, U.S. News dredged up 12 other innovations that, though often taken for granted, are constantly saving lives. Some, such as flushable toilets, haven't changed a whole lot since they were first introduced, while others, such as medical imaging, seem to evolve faster than fruit flies.

Traffic Lights

Most years, more than 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents, making driving one of our riskiest daily activities. The number, however, would be far higher without traffic lights, the first of which was installed in 1868 in front of the British House of Commons to control the flow of pedestrians and horse buggies. For a look at the future of traffic, see this U.S. News cover story.


Flush toilets protect us from an onslaught of fecal-borne diseases by whisking pathogens away before they can infect us. An Englishman, John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, is credited with making the first prototype in 1596. Urban myth maintains that another Englishman, Thomas Crapper, invented the flush toilet. He did not, though Crapper did hold patents to other plumbing products and may have helped publicize flush toilets.

Sterile Surgery

Before an English surgeon by the name of Joseph Lister published a series of cases highlighting the importance of washing his hands, instruments, and bandages with carbolic acid in 1867, most surgeons wouldn't have dreamed of washing their bloodied hands between operations. Even after Lister showed his carbolic acid spray could reduce the mortality rate of major surgery from about 45 to 15 percent, many surgeons were skeptical. Today, fortunately, health professionals acknowledge the importance of using antiseptic agents, but that doesn't mean hospital hygiene problems have been licked: Sixty percent of caregivers still don't wash their hands before touching patients, U.S. News's On Quality blog recently reported.

Canning of Food and Drink

In 1795, with its troops languishing in the field from hunger and scurvy, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who invented a new method of preserving food. Within 15 years, Nicolas Appert of Paris had done just that. His method involved first cooking food, then sealing it in a glass bottle with a cork, and then dipping the bottle in boiling water—creating what amounted to the first canned or bottled food. Metallic cans, now ubiquitous, recently have come under scrutiny for containing a controversial chemical called bisphenol A in their linings.


Vaccines have saved hundreds of millions of lives—more, arguably, than any other innovation. Edward Jenner helped kicked off the vaccine era by introducing the first one, a vaccine against smallpox, in 1796. Later researchers developed vaccines for a wide range of diseases, from cholera and anthrax to mumps and measles. Recently, however, critics have howled that certain vaccines may increase a child's risk of developing autism, a controversial idea that U.S. News health editor Bernadine Healy weighed in on.

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