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Distillations | Science History Institute

294 EpisodesProduced by Science History InstituteWebsite

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.


How Philadelphia's Water Pollution Problems Shaped the City

Philadelphia just had the wettest decade on record, and all that precipitation has wreaked havoc on the city’s waterways. Like most old cities, Philadelphia has a combined sewer system—that is, one pipe is used to carry both sewage and stormwater. When it rains a lot, the system gets overwhelmed, forcing the water department to send raw sewage into rivers and creeks. City officials and engineers knew this was going to be a problem when they built the sewer system in the 1800s. The reason why they used a combined system anyway can be best explained by two forces: knowledge ceilings and path dependency. In this episode we’re going to explore how the city got to this point and how, in an interesting twist, it led to Philadelphia having one of the most innovative water systems in the country.   

Philadelphia is home of the Distillations podcast. For this episode we are going to break down three centuries of water-pollution history in our backyard. It is a special collaboration with the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of their series From the Source: Stories of the Delaware River.


Host: Elisabeth Berry Drago Reporter: Rigoberto HernandezSebastian Echeverri Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez  Audio Engineer: James Morrison  Additional production: Dan Drago

Special thanks to the Science History Institutes, oral history department, and the museum team for doing some of the research that went into this episode.

This includes Rebecca OrtenbergChristy SchneiderSamantha BlattZackary Biro, and Grey Pierce.

Resource List

Grabar, Henry. “Tunnel Vision.” Slate, January 2, 2019.

Handy, Jam. “Waters of the Commonwealth.” Pennsylvania Sanitary Water Board, 1951. 

Henninger, Danya. “The Incredible Fairmount Water Works: Explosions, Mark Twain and the Long-Lost Philadelphia Aquarium.” Billy Penn, October 10, 2015.

Kummer, Frank. “The Secret Scourge of Climate Change? More Raw Sewage in Philadelphia’s Waterways.” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 2019.

Levine, Adam. “Fairmount Water Works.” Philadelphia Water Department Water and Drainage History Course, 2015. 

Nemiroff, Sydney P., dir. “Road Ahead: Milestone 3.” Philadelphia Department of Records, ca. 1960. 

Schulman, Alexis. “Sustainable Cities and Institutional Change: The Transformation of Urban Stormwater Management.” PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018.  

Stutz, Bruce. “Philadelphia Is Tackling Its Stormwater Problem.” Yale Environment 360 (March 29, 2018). 

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