Plumbing Industry's Role in Disease Control

PEOPLE IN OUR industry like to say that plumbers have saved more lives in the last century or so than doctors have. In fact, Ive said so myself, and recently I heard a doctor say the same thing. Heres the truth of the matter: Disease control has always been a joint effort accomplished by many parties, including: plumbers, doctors, public health officials, water utilities, inspectors, plumbing engineers

PEOPLE IN OUR industry like to say that plumbers have saved more lives in the last century or so than doctors have. In fact, I’ve said so myself, and recently I heard a doctor say the same thing.

Here’s the truth of the matter:

Disease control has always been a joint effort accomplished by many parties, including: plumbers, doctors, public health officials, water utilities, inspectors, plumbing engineers who design functional systems and manufacturers that make quality products.

The International SARS Symposium last month in Los Angeles demonstrated the point. More than 100 plumbing, public health and building professionals from seven countries attended the event, which focused on the link between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and plumbing system design.

The symposium was organized at the behest of the World Health Organization. A SARS outbreak a year ago in Hong Kong convinced the W.H.O. that it needed to enlist the help of the plumbing industry to prevent similar occurrences elsewhere.

Public health officials came to this realization even though the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong has been the only one directly linked to a poorly designed plumbing system. Although it’s hard to believe that the circumstances that led to the situation in Hong Kong could happen in the United States or Canada, the outbreak proves that an isolated incident thousands of miles away can have an impact here. Anyone who visited Toronto early last summer, as I did, could see the effect on tourism and related businesses.

Contractors, engineers, inspectors, code officials and others at the Los Angeles meeting were eager to reassert the plumbing industry’s role not only in the control of SARS but also of other water-borne diseases that potentially have a bigger impact on human lives. Even with the recognition of its importance, however, the plumbing industry still must overcome significant challenges, which are international in scope but must be confronted locally.

Now that the W.H.O. realizes how vital plumbing is to public health, one large challenge is to educate governments and citizens as well. The reason that so many people are at risk around the world is the lack of awareness of the effect that a contaminated water supply and ineffective waste management can have on public health. That ignorance, in turn, has led to government agencies cutting funds for infrastructure improvements.

“Political realities push water needs to the bottom of the list (of priorities),” Dr. Charles Watson, a public health physician, told the symposium.

As contractors, you are in as good a position as anyone in the plumbing industry to educate consumers about the importance of a clean water supply so that they can lobby government officials to make needed investments in public water and sewer systems.

A second challenge is to make sure that the our industry provides the education and training needed for designers, installers and inspectors of plumbing systems. As contractors, you face the training issue daily; you must strive continually to keep yourself and your work force up to date on the latest products and systems because plumbing is a life-and-death matter.

A third challenge is for different groups within the plumbing industry to work together to move the industry forward. It’s too easy for contractors, engineers, code officials, wholesalers and manufacturers to look to their own agendas rather than to carry the industry forward as a whole.

SARS has brought death and suffering as well as negative economic repercussions. The Hong Kong outbreak also has raised the awareness of the importance of plumbing and water supply issues.

As Dr. Watson pointed out in Los Angeles, the private interests of the plumbing industry are well aligned with the goals of public health. Our industry must work alongside those in other professions that seek to control the spread of disease.