Water Chlorination and 12 Other Lifesaving Innovations That Rarely Get Credit

100 years ago, Jersey City became the first city to chlorinate its drinking water.


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Blood Transfusions

Transfusions were an extremely risky affair until, in 1901, the Austrian-American Karl Landsteiner realized that some people have incompatible blood types. His insight dramatically improved transfusions, which have become a workhorse of modern medicine. Organ transplants, for example, require about 40 units of blood, heart surgery requires six, bone marrow transplants require 20, and treatment for auto accident victims about 50. Every two seconds somebody needs blood, according to the American Red Cross. Still, fewer than 10 percent of people donate each year (partly because only 38 percent of the population is eligible). This site will help you find a nearby blood bank where you can donate.

Drinking Water Infrastructure

Chlorination isn't the only innovation that keeps our tap water clean. An expansive network of reservoirs, pipes, and sanitation facilities is also required to get the job done. However, experts say that much of that infrastructure is ailing from old age and will require a massive influx of funds to the tune of about $500 billion to avert a crisis. (This recent documentary has more on the water infrastructure crisis.) Consumers, meantime, should brace themselves for the fact that water rates may well double in the next few decades, says Steve Albee of the Environmental Protection Agency. For more, read this U.S. News story on our water infrastructure woes.

Hypodermic Needles

The hollow needle of a hypodermic syringe plays a critical role in a variety of medical procedures, including drawing blood for diagnostic tests and injecting medications. Millions of people with diabetes, for example, rely on hypodermic needles to get insulin into their body on a daily basis. Still, despite their ability to save lives, many people fear them. Studies have found that as much as 10 percent of the population has what psychiatrists call belonephobia, or intense fear of needles and injections.

Medical Imaging

In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen produced the first picture using X-rays. The image, which clearly showed the skeletal outlines of his wife's fingers, as well as her wedding ring, electrified the public. The advance was the first of many imaging technologies—including MRIs, CT scans, and ultrasound—that allow doctors to peer inside patients without slicing them open. CT scans, for example, are now capable of producing exquisitely detailed 3-D images of the body, and functional MRIs can identify areas of the brain associated with certain activities, such as listening to music, a pastime that can be medicine for the mind.


The stuff—troubling as it might be from an environmental perspective—makes our daily lives safer in a plethora of ways. Plastic containers, for example, protect our food from bacterial contamination; plastic bicycle helmets, our heads; plastic life jackets and air bags, our lives. Seat belts, for example, save some 11,000 people each year, according to the American Chemistry Council. Recent news about plastic, however, has been less than rosy. Some plastics contain certain chemicals, particularly phthalates and bisphenol A, that may pose a health risk, as U.S. News has reported.


Before home refrigeration became common, Americans ate mainly bread and salted meat when produce wasn't in season. Now, thanks to refrigerators, which started to appear in many homes after 1911, we can eat a staggering—and much more nutritious—variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, and fresh meat. Research shows that improvements in nutrition due to refrigeration contributed to a 5 percent increase in the height of adults. Now we just need to steer ourselves toward healthful food choices, like the Mediterranean-style diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods, rather than gorging on products concocted by food scientists.