Interview with Dr. Michael J. McGuire

December 4th, 2013

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Dr. Michael J. McGuire is an environmental engineer whose career has focused on drinking water quality and the history of water. His expertise on the subject of water led him to publish numerous articles and books, such as The Chlorine Revolution. He also frequently updates his two blogs: This Day in Water History and Safe Drinking Water Dot Com, and remains active on twitter. He continues to write extensively on this important world-wide issue.

Since 1971, he has been active in the American Water Works Association (AWWA), and has been a member of other societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Chemical Society and the Water Environment Foundation. He received his PhD from Drexel University and has since won awards for his excellence in environmental engineering. In 2009, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Q: What sparked your interest in safe drinking water and water history?

A: I was fortunate to land my first job with the Philadelphia Water Department in 1969. The theoretical information that I had learned about water quality as an undergraduate was brought to life as I participated in projects to safeguard the drinking water for that great city. Samuel S. Baxter, the water commissioner for Philadelphia, convinced me that public service associated with providing safe water was absolutely the best way to spend my career.

The water history bug bit me in 2005 when I wrote an article for the AWWA Journal about the revolutions that occurred in U.S. drinking water disinfection over the previous 97 years. Chlorinating the Jersey City water supply in 1908 was the first revolution, and I became fascinated with the people who were responsible and with the barriers they faced to implement effective water treatment processes. At that time, waterborne disease was a leading killer especially of very young children. What Dr. John L. Leal and George Warren Fuller did back then was extraordinary, and their exploits fed my desire to learn more about the roots of our profession.

Q: What was your inspiration to write your book The Chlorine Revolution?

A: While exploring the chlorination of the Jersey City water supply, I discovered that the wrong person was given credit for this giant leap in technology. My early research showed that it was the personal courage of Dr. John L. Leal that made it happen, but most of the histories of chlorine use in drinking water gave the credit to another person. George A. Johnson received the acclaim after he published influential papers that ignored Leal’s contributions. He was able to get away with his fraud because Leal had died a few years after water chlorination became successful. I thought that it was important to right this historical wrong and, in the process, to explore how all of this happened so that young engineers and scientists could understand that personal courage was as important as technical knowledge.

Q: What are some of the most surprising facts about drinking water that you’ve uncovered?

A: I was amazed to learn that at the turn of the 20th century the fear of chemicals was just as strong as, maybe even stronger, than it is today. The public and some engineers were fearful of using something as innocuous and useful as alum to coagulate particles including pathogenic bacteria for subsequent removal by sedimentation and filtration. One statement summed it all up for me: “We don’t want to drink puckered water.” With that as context, I began to understand why adding chlorine to water in 1908 was so controversial. Everyone knew that chlorine was a poison at high concentrations. It took a visionary like Leal to learn through laboratory experimentation that a tiny amount of chlorine could effectively eliminate the disease-causing bacteria that were killing large numbers of people, and then to apply that knowledge at full scale in a real water supply.
I was then startled to find out that white blood cells in the human body use chlorine to kill invading organisms. Phagocytic leucocytes actually manufacture hypochlorous acid and chloramines at the cellular level. These specialized cells surround a virus or bacterium and then, through well-known metabolic pathways produce forms of chlorine to kill the invaders. I tried to imagine how helpful knowledge like that would have been to Leal when he was trying to convince the judge in the second Jersey City trial that small amounts of chlorine in drinking water would be safe for humans.

Q: What do you believe is the most effective way to clean water and make it safe to drink?

A: Multi-barrier protection against contaminants is the basis for all systems providing safe water to drink. In developed countries, there is no substitute for finding protected water supplies and then applying the best technology available to remove contaminants of health concern at modern treatment facilities operated in a sustainable manner. A properly maintained and secure distribution system is also essential to providing safe water to the public.

In developing countries, there are many approaches to providing safe drinking water. Some of these methods at the village and family level are using new technologies and methods that can be maintained well into the future. The most effective methodologies in these societies have to be based on the same principles of multi-barrier protection for water consumers. In all countries, effective disposal of human wastes must be an integral part of drinking water protection.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most significant day in water history? And do you have a favorite day?

A: As you might expect, there have been many significant days in water history that have captured my attention. It is certainly hard to pick just one. One thing that I have found while compiling the information for my blog This Day In Water History is that there are many events and people that I was simply not aware of. Writing the blog has been a revelation for me. Finding out about Ellen Swallow Richards was a high point. She was the first woman graduate of MIT and the first woman to teach there. She taught early water technology leaders such as George Warren Fuller, Allen Hazen and George C. Whipple. She developed the first quantitative map of water contamination in Massachusetts. I have enjoyed spotlighting those women who were important in the early history of drinking water protection.

Q: In your blog you’ve mentioned giving talks and doing book signings, do you have any events coming up?

A: I am speaking at a luncheon for the Association of California Water Agencies at their Fall Conference in Los Angeles on December 5, 2013. I am really thrilled to be the keynote speaker at the AWWA New York Section Water Event and Expo on May 13, 2014, in Rochester, New York. They are celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the founding of their Section and they have asked me to provide some historical perspective on the progress we have made in safeguarding drinking water quality to mark the event. Finally, I will be giving several talks about water history at the annual conference of AWWA that will be held in Boston, June 8-12, 2014. This will be a great opportunity to talk about water history in the epicenter of the early history of our country. At all of these events, I will be signing books and talking with people about the importance of water history in our profession.


Written By: Lynn Taylor

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