Plumbing and public health – an essential connection

To say that plumbing has an essential connection with public health may be an understatement. The Centers for Disease Control calls the shift from inadequate water supplies to clean drinking water one of the top ten public health achievements of the 20th century because of its fundamental impact on the spread of communicable disease.

Many people forget, but before public water and sanitation existed, there were repeated outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, influenza, yellow fever, and other diseases; In the early 19th century, 100,000 people died each year in the U.S. from diarrhea-enteritis and dysentery, and 23,000 from typhoid. These threats are largely non-existent today, due to the public health focus on plumbing and vigilance of our professional plumbers and inspectors.

Fallgatter InspectionPublic Health’s plumbing inspectors assure that plumbing in residences and commercial buildings is installed correctly. They are masters of the plumbing codes, which are rules set up to assure that cross connections, leakage from soil and waste lines, and accidents don’t happen.

A cross connection is a reversal of flow that occurs when a vacuum occurs, perhaps due to a loss in pressure; and contaminants are drawn – often surreptitiously – into potable lines. Faulty installations can result in illness, injury or property damage. We sat down with our Chief Plumbing Inspector, Dave Cantrell, who explained a few of the essential connections between Public Health and plumbing:

The connection to food safety
Plumbing works in concert with Public Health’s restaurant inspection program. This makes intuitive sense – restaurant inspectors ensure necessary equipment is in place, and plumbers must make sure that equipment is installed correctly. Plumbing inspection requires a specific kind of expertise, and it involves more than just the kitchen sink. For instance, if a carbonated beverage machine backflows, the carbonated material can corrode copper pipes, which may lead to copper poisoning and can be life-threatening to small children.

The connection to hygiene
Water flows through bathroom sinks at a much slower rate than it does in a commercial kitchen sink. When water flows too fast through a small on-demand water heater, it may not have time to heat the water hot enough for hand washing. People often think they need to install a larger and more expensive on-demand or storage-type water heater, which can be costly. One trick Dave recommends is the installation of a small, inexpensive faucet aerator, which slows the flow of water, allowing it to heat up. As a result, hands stay clean and businesses save cash, too.

The connection to injury prevention
The need for plumbing experts really heats up in homes. If showerheads and showers aren’t installed correctly, water can become too hot too quickly, subjecting the bather to scalding. Additionally, when water turns hot or cold abruptly, people jump. And when people jump in slippery showers, they are very likely to fall and sustain serious injury.

The connection to healthcare delivery
We all know plumbing is the critical delivery and waste system for water – but did you know plumbing is involved with medical gases and liquids too? Hospitals and clinics need to circulate hazardous substances, and it takes a special kind of plumbing expertise to understand how to do this safely.

Plumbing and public health go way back. In fact, our own department has its roots in clean water and sanitation. We’re lucky to have plumbing inspectors who are not only highly skilled, but passionate about their work and invested in improving plumbing standards and codes both locally and throughout the country. Learn more about Public Health’s Plumbing and Gas Piping program by clicking this link.