Contaminated Water Avoidance and Purification
Water, water everywhere, there must be lots to drink! This is the attitude many Canadians take towards their emergency water preparations. We live in a country that is so abundant in fresh water that people learn to take it for granted. Fair enough, we do have a lot of it, but your neighborhood stream won’t be much help if the water in your taps runs dry. Contaminated water might even lurk in your private well during emergency situations.
Before we go further it is important I mention that drinking wild water (anything from a pond, river, lake, etc.) is not a guarantee that you will get sick. Before humans discovered purification techniques we drank plenty of it and the species has survived. That being said, diarrhea, vomiting, fainting, and possible death can really put a damper on one’s day. Personally, I’d rather not take the risk.
Why Store Water?
If something goes wrong with your tap water your local municipality most likely has ways to detect problems and warn the public. Boil Water Advisories are a common precaution taken by municipalities who are worried about the safety of their water. For the most part these work great (see ‘Boiling’ for exceptions) and between boiled and bottled water people get by just fine when their tap water is at risk. But what about in emergency situations?
In an emergency many things can happen that could contaminate, or even eliminate, your water supply. Earthquakes and sudden cold snaps can burst or damage pipes, and crack well walls, allowing pathogens, sediment, and chemicals into your water. If local infrastructure is badly damaged, you might not have access to any water at all. When a wildfire strikes it can drastically effect water quality and availability. If local water providers don’t have a robust infrastructure and flexible procedures to keep water purification at optimum levels, then their customers will be the ones to pay.
You can greatly reduce damage to your private well by plugging or capping it if you foresee a risk. Similarly, there are many ways to prevent pipes from freezing in case of a cold-snap or a traditional Canadian winter. Insulating pipes, heating drain lines, and disconnecting your outdoor hoses are just some of the ways to protect your home. For more information on those and other options check out this WikiHow article.
If an earthquake strikes, and it’s safe to re-enter your home, be sure to turn off your water lines (and your gas lines if directed) to minimize any leaks caused by the quake. Thoroughly check your lines for damage before turning your utilities back on. If you are building your own home, be sure to look into earthquake-proof, flexible piping as a preparedness option.
Even taking these precautions can’t guarantee that your family will always have access to clean drinking water. Storing your own emergency water supply, or filtration/chemical systems, is the only way to ensure that you’ll always have life-giving H2O and avoid contaminated water.
Creating a comprehensive store of available drinking water is the best way to avoid contaminated water in any situation. With water storage options lasting up to fifty years it’s easier than ever to avoid dehydration (and crippling diseases) in an emergency.
First, think about where you will store your water. Keep your supplies in a cool, dark place and make sure the whole family is aware of its location. If you are concerned about the structural stability of your home and worry about a possible collapse in an earthquake scenario, consider keeping your water in an outdoor shed or close to an exterior wall for easy retrieval.
Next you’ll need to figure out how much water to store. The Canadian government suggests at least four litres of water, per person, each day. This is to cover drinking, food preparation, dish washing and personal hygiene. For emergency stock, more is better but three days is the generally agreed-upon minimum. In short:
Number of People X 4 Litres X Number of Days = How many litres you’ll need to store.
So a four-person family looking to prepare for a week without water should have 4x4x7, or 112 litres.
When it comes time to obtain your water there are a lot of options. Many people buy bottled water from the supermarket, but if choosing this route be aware that the shelf life tends to be about six months. If you’re looking for a longer term option, a water that you don’t have to think about for a full FIFTY years is Blue Can Water. This handy water comes in convenient 355ml cans and can be bought in flats of 24 or by the pallet. Too much? SOS Water Pouches are a popular mid-point with a five-year shelf life and a middling price range.
If you want to store your own water be sure to use food-grade, opaque BPA free plastic containers. Lesser plastics can leak nasty chemicals into your water, and translucent containers allow light in, feeding bacteria. If you’ve ever left an aquarium in sunlight, you’ll know that I’m serious on the light thing. Yuck.
If storing large quantities of water (for schools, businesses, or those who aren’t willing to give up baths in an emergency) consider a purpose-built container like a SuperTanker. If storing your own water remember to add a stabilizer (like Copper Silver Ion Formula) to keep water fresh for when you need it. For more purification options see the next section.
Making Wild Water Safe
Whether you’re choosing to drink from a local stream or making certain that your stored water is 100% drinkable, it is important to understand the steps to truly pure water. Never try to purify salt water or water with high concentrations of chemicals (e.g. pools and agricultural runoff) as most processes do not remove these contaminants. For the purest possible water, it is best to combine two or more of the below methods, however in most cases just one will suffice.
It is a common misconception that boiling contaminated water will make it safe. To quote WebMD:
“It depends on the contaminant. Boiling water can kill germs, but things like lead, nitrates, and pesticides aren’t affected. And since boiling reduces the volume of water, it increases the concentration of those contaminants.”
In other words, if harmful bacteria aren’t the only thing present in your water, boiling can compound other problems. It is best to use boiling in conjunction with Filtration, but it is still a potent tool in the purifiers arsenal.
No pathogens can survive temperatures above 85C for more than a few minutes. In the time it takes water to get from 85 to 100 degrees (boiling point) all the pathogens will be killed. When your water reaches a rolling boil it is free of pathogens. In an emergency, power-outages and damaged gas lines can make it tricky to boil water with the usual methods. If you’re like me and can’t start a fire to save your life, consider camp stoves for your survival kit.
Filters force water through tiny pores to catch particulates and parasites. Used the world over by seasoned hikers and third-world communities, LifeStraw filters offer award-winning technology in a variety of packages. Some of LifeStraw’s innovative designs even filter out viruses, unlike most available filtration. This method also allows you to drink your water more quickly than boiling.
Filtration is said to be the best tasting purification method, as the water is as cool and fresh as its natural source. This makes filtration an ideal solution for family preparedness when dealing with picky eaters (and drinkers!)
If you find yourself stuck without preparations, you can also build your own filter out of natural materials. Be warned however that these are not recommended outside of times of extreme need as they do not make the water safe, only clearer and more palatable.
Chemical disinfectants can be used in conjunction with filtration to make almost all water drinkable. Even lesser filters (a coffee filter for example) can be used to remove particulates and the disinfectants will take care of the bacteria.
Chemical disinfectants come in different shapes and sizes. Aquatabs are a very portable option that is ideal for camping and hiking. In a pack of fifty, each small, safe, easy to use tablet will treat one litre of water. For larger quantities the extra strength tablets come in packs of thirty and each tablet treats 20L. Aquatabs are a great chlorine-based option that doesn’t leave nasty flavours or colours in your drinking water.
Unscented household bleach can also be used to chemically treat water. Do not use colour-safe bleaches, bleaches with added cleaners, or non-chlorine bleaches for water purification. Bleach kills some, but not all, germs that lurk in water. Because of this, if you are unsure about the quality of your water, even after it has been treated with bleach, do not drink it. To treat using bleach add two drops (0.1 mL) of bleach (for a 5.25% chlorine solution) to one litre of warm water. Stir the mixture and cover it, leaving it to stand for at least thirty minutes. If you do not smell a slight chlorine odour after thirty minutes add two more drops and wait fifteen more minutes. If you still don’t smell chlorine, dump it and find another water source.
A Word on Dehydration
On average, a human can go for three days without water. Ideally however, a person should consume two to three litres of water a day. When the body loses more fluid than it gains it becomes dehydrated.
Contaminated water can actually do more harm than good when it comes to hydration. Many water-borne diseases cause diarrhea, fevers, and vomiting, all three of which dry out the body and make it difficult to re-hydrate.
In order of increasing severity, the symptoms commonly associated with extreme thirst and dehydration are:
- Thirst (surprising right?)
- Reduced Sweating
- Decreased urine production
- Dry mouth
- Reduced skin elasticity
- Low blood pressure
- Damage to the internal organs
If you experience these symptoms, and they persist after a long drink, contact your health professional or go to a hospital. If you experience the last two, get a friend to drive.
Thank you for reading this article and we hope you never have need of it.
Article Written by: Zenia Platten, employee and writer at Total Prepare