EOH Expert Seminar: How Safe Is Our Water?

The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health brings in one or two experts each month to discuss their research in seminars attended by faculty and students from both inside and outside the department. Kellogg Schwab, PhD, the Abel Wolman Professor in Water and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was the featured speaker in a recent seminar.

Schwab’s high energy, sometimes humorous and very interactive talk included his well-informed thoughts about our world’s triumphs and struggles to maintain adequate clean water, sanitation and hygiene (or WaSH, as it is known by global health professionals). Some of his talk’s most galvanizing moments were his arguments for why we shouldn’t take our nation’s access to safe and plentiful drinking water for granted.

As he spoke, Schwab’s veneration for the man that his endowed chair is named for came through loud and clear. A hundred years ago this year was when Wolman teamed up with a chemist colleague at Johns Hopkins, Linn Enslow, to begin experimenting with using chlorine to eliminate pathogens in drinking water. Together, they determined the right dose of chlorine to kill bacteria in large water distribution systems without harming people. Wolman went on to apply what their research suggested, and the rest is history. His work “is credited with saving more lives through water sanitation than anyone in the world,” Schwab stressed.

The most important medical advance
In a 2007 poll, readers of the respected British Medical Journal voted that sanitation, including clean water and sewage disposal, was the most important medical advance since 1840 (when the journal was first published). Sanitation “beat out antibiotics, anesthesia and vaccines, which are all important to public health,” Schwab said.

Each day, Americans use approximately 40 billion gallons of treated water and our country’s agriculture and industries use 300 billion gallons of untreated water. Listen to the recording to learn Schwab’s thoughts on why we should be paying more for the water we use, how much is lost through leaking infrastructure, why Americans should not flush flushable wipes into the sewers, what a fatberg is, why antimicrobial soap is the worst thing Americans can have in their household, and much more.

After the seminar, Quinn Lombard, a student in the EOH Global Environmental Health MPH program who had listened raptly to Schwab’s talk, asked him if he had seen any constructed wetland sanitation systems first-hand. She said that she had read an interesting article about the use of these wetlands to filter sewage.

Schwab responded that, although constructed wetland sanitation systems can work well, the space—and water—that they require can preclude their use in many areas, particularly in the villages in low and middle income countries that are most in need of sanitation systems. However, he pointed out that diverting the solid waste and urine can be beneficial because each can be converted for use as fertilizer.

View Schwab’s seminar here