In 1991, an epidemic of cholera started in Peru and spread to the rest of Latin American. This epidemic reached the U.S. in 1992 via an outbreak among 75 commercial airline passengers from Peru.
This epidemic is reported to have caused as many as 1 million cases of cholera and as many as 10,000 deaths.
Although the epidemic was reportedly started by a ship which dumped its bilge within reach of Peruvian waters, the epidemic's spread has been credited in part to the Peruvian government's decision to stop chlorinating drinking water supplies.
Why would the Peruvian government decide to forego such a basic public health measure as drinking water chlorination? (After all, chlorination has been used in the U.S. since 1908 and is generally considered as one of the greatest public health measures of all time!)
As first reported by the British journal Nature (November 28, 1991), the Peruvian government made the unfortunate, and ultimately fatal, mistake of ceasing chlorination based on EPA studies from the 1970s that associated drinking water chlorinated to 100 parts per billion with an increase in cancer risk for individuals on the order of 1 in 10,000.
It was not until 1992 that EPA's Science Advisory Board and EPA staff finally acknowledged that the link between chlorinated drinking water and cancer was not scientifically supportable.
Now, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that
Since the onset of the Latin America cholera epidemic in 1991, the number of cholera cases reported in the U.S. has increased dramatically. From 1965 to 1991, an average of 5 cases per year were reported -- 31% of them acquired abroad; from 1992 to 1994, the average was 53 cases per year, and 96% [of them were acquired abroad]. Much of this increase is attributable to the Latin America epidemic.
The CDC researchers also reported that persons living in areas of the U.S. lacking safe drinking water or adequate sanitation could be at risk for secondary transmission of cholera, if the epidemic continues to spread. Those most at risk include infants and children, the elderly and others with weakened immune systems.
As a final note, residents of Washington, D.C. recently went through a drinking water crisis because higher-than-normal levels of bacteria were found in drinking water supplies.
Can you believe that there was actually some controversy about the local government's decision to increase chlorination levels? Guess why!
Fortunately for the elderly and others with weakened immune systems in Washington, D.C., sanity prevailed over junk science.
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