The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

By Werner Troesken

The history of a long-running environmental catastrophe chronicles the harmful effects of lead pipes and their continued use despite evidence that they pose a significant health risk.





The history of a long-running environmental catastrophe chronicles the harmful effects of lead pipes and their continued use despite evidence that they pose a significant health risk.

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials. Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects—particularly for pregnant women and young children—and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure—explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262201674 330 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 21 illus.


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262701259 330 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 21 illus.


  • The Great Lead Pipe Disaster is a fascinating read, one that in exploring the intersections of public health, public policy, science, and economics offers lessons and has implications far beyond the details of lead content in water.

    Civil Engineering

  • A challenging and important contribution to our understanding of one of the great public health problems of the past two centuries—lead and it's pollution of the environment. Troesken has provided us with new insights, and we should applaud him for it.

    American Scientist

  • Each chapter is wonderfully written in accessible language, and the author is meticulous with attributions and supporting evidence.



  • Werner Troesken has written a fascinating detective story of a little-known environmental disaster. He shows that lead from water pipes killed and sickened millions without anyone realizing the culprit's identity. Underdeveloped scientific knowledge, cost considerations, municipal water-supply boosterism, and liability law led to a complete denial of the evidence. Essential for anyone interested in public health, science, history, or politcs.

    Dora Costa

    Professor of Economics, MIT

  • A full and valuable discussion of a long-neglected public health problem.

    Herbert Needleman

    School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh

  • Werner Troesken's superb analysis of a wide variety of sources makes a major contribution to both historical studies of heath and medicine and to contemporary health policy debates. The problems created by lead water pipes existed in the United States and Britain for more than a century, and Troesken uses data past and present to detail the causes, effects, and consequences of the resulting health troubles, and how and why public officials avoided dealing with them. This is an important book for historians, public health officials, and social scientists.

    Stanley Engerman

    John H. Munro Professor of Economics and Professor of History, University of Rochester, coauthor of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery