On 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.
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.
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.
Fire Sprinkler Systems
Until 1874, when Henry Parmelee installed the nation's first automatic sprinkler system in the piano factory he owned in New Haven, Conn., fire control systems were little more than collections of perforated pipes. In contrast, Parmelee's sprinkler heads had valves that, when exposed to high temperatures, opened automatically and released water. Until the 1940s, however, such sophisticated systems were used only in commercial buildings. Now, they are mandatory in most newly built hospitals, schools, hotels, and other public structures. And for good reason: The presence of a sprinkler reduces the chances that a fire will be deadly by one half to three fourths and cuts the average property loss by one half to two thirds, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
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.
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.
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.