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date: 09 July 2020

Environmental Pollution and the American City 

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Urban History
Brian McCammackBrian McCammack

In small early American cities prior to industrialization, water polluted by human and animal waste was the primary concern because of the ways it contributed to the spread of diseases such as yellow fever, typhoid fever, and cholera. In this era, pollution was mitigated on an individual, ad hoc basis, rather than coordinated by municipalities. Cesspools and privy vaults kept human and household wastes close to their sources until they were emptied; solid wastes were merely tossed to the street, where scavengers recycled and pigs foraged. A great deal of food waste and offal was also refined for use in other industries or as hog feed, primarily by the poorer classes in neighborhoods where organized refuse collection was virtually nonexistent. Cities such as New York and Boston recycled horse manure and human waste, converting it into fertilizer for use on nearby farmlands, but the practice was never widespread. Industrial sources of pollution were relatively minimal, but operations such as tanneries and slaughterhouses generated animal wastes that were simply discharged onto adjacent lands and into nearby waterways, eventually leading to growing “tragedy of the commons” problems that led Americans to look toward Europe for solutions.... ...

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