For Want of a Cup: The Rise of Tea and the Impact of Water Quality on Mortality in England

Francisca M. Antman, University of Colorado at Boulder

While it is now well accepted that access to clean water plays an important role in public health and economic development, there is little historical evidence for the role that clean water played in the development of the now-rich world. We investigate this question by exploiting a natural experiment on the effects of water quality on mortality—the advent of tea drinking in 18th century England. Tea consumption diffused quickly through England, even among lower classes, and resulted in an unintentional increase in consumption of boiled water. We show that yearly shocks in tea imports had a negative effect on mortality rates and find that areas with lower initial water quality had larger declines in mortality rates. Finally, we discuss the broader impact of this accidental improvement in public health which occurred at the same time that people were crowding into cities, thus providing the labor needed for industrialization.

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Presented in Session 135: Environmental Effects on Human Capital