That Water is Unsafe to Drink

Contaminated Water

Think That Water is Clean? This, or worse, could be laying in your water supply just upstream. Your best chance of survival and staying healthy depends upon proper treatment of ALL sources of water.

In this Survival Topic we will discuss why it is important that you consider ALL sources of drinking water as contaminated with disease causing organisms until you properly treat it. We will also touch upon the best method to make water safe to drink.

Water Born Disease Organisms I want to hammer home to you the importance of always always always (did I say “always”?) treating any water before you use it for anything you will ingest into your body.

Water Born Disease Organisms

I want to hammer home to you the importance of always always always (did I say “always”?) treating any water before you use it for anything you will ingest into your body.

In short, before you use water for any purpose that ends up in your body including

  • Drinking water.
  • Oral hygiene such as rinsing your mouth or brushing your teeth.
  • Cleaning of vegetables and other foods.
  • Cleaning of cooking and eating utensils.
  • Douching and enemas if you are into such things best left unsaid.

The water must first be de-contaminated so that all water borne pathogens are destroyed or rendered inert. Otherwise you may become very sick indeed.

Contaminated Water

One of the most basic concepts you must completely understand in order to stay healthy in wilderness survival situations is that all sources of water are suspect.

Urban dwellers that we tend to be, we are usually accustomed to simply turning on the tap and drinking the water that comes from it.

It is important to note that tap water usually comes from protected sources and has been treated by municipal agencies to destroy disease causing organisms. This water is also frequently tested in order to insure it meets standards for potablility. In more rural areas tap water often comes from wells and springs where natural processes have purified the water.

Because we usually obtain our water so easily from the tap, the mindset to always consider water from untested sources as contaminated can be difficult to fully accept. Old habits die hard and many of you will be tempted to ignore my advice and drink any outdoor water source that appears to be fresh and clean. But I want you to drop any preconceived notion you many have on this subject and trust Survival Topics completely when it comes to treating your water. It could very well save your life.

Too many times to count people have told me that a certain stream or lake is safe to drink because it is clear, cold, and natural. I have some important information that could very well prevent you from becoming very sick:

That crystal clear mountain stream may seem clean enough to the eye, but invisible microorganisms are thriving in its waters by the millions.

Most of the tiny living things in water are harmless to humans, but all too often there are types that can make you very sick should you ingest them.

You Are Likely Drinking Feces

Many disease organisms contaminate water sources due to improper disposal of human wastes including feces. Another common natural source of water contamination comes from the local wildlife that often defecate in or near the water.

Birds and mammals that live in or near water think nothing of releasing their bodily wastes into it. But worse, many ignorant humans will improperly dispose of urine, feces, and kitchen wastes close to communal water supplies. No matter how remote you feel you are, I guarantee someone has been there before you. They may be swimming, washing up, or even have deposited a steaming pile of feces just upstream minutes before you filled your water container.

On a number of occasions while at established campsites I have visited the only available water supply, often a natural spring, only to find that someone had washed their dishes in it! Were it not for the odd bits of food items floating in the other wise clear water I may never had known ignorant humans had been there before me.

If these people are dumb enough to wash filthy dishes in the only available water supply, who knows what else they may have done nearby. If I were less informed about the hazards of untested water I may have drank that water without treating it and become very sick.

Humans are veritible poop machines and wherever they have been you can be assured there is plenty of feces laying about. Historically, wastes and human fecal contamination of water supplies has resulted in large epidemics of cholera and other diseases that have ended the lives of millions. Do not let the actions of dumb people take you down: treat all water before you ingest it.

Disease Organisms Would Like You to Drink Them

Water can contain a range of nasty organisms you would do well to avoid. These include bacteria such as

  • Escherichia coli (E. Coli)
  • Salmonella

Protozoa, which also often come from human an animal feces:

Microsporidia including

  • Giarda
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Toxoplasma gondii
  • Amoebae
  • Ciliates
  • Flagellates
  • Apicomplexans

and let’s not forget helminth zoonoses such as:

  • nematodes
  • ascarids
  • pinworms
  • hookworms
  • strongylids
  • angiostrongylids
  • capillarids
  • guinea worms
  • liver flukes
  • tapeworms

But it’s not just fecal contamination from wildlife and ignorant humans you must worry about. I recall hiking up a crystal clear mountain stream in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. At the top of a high waterfall, below which people often swim, lay a huge rotting moose carcass that dammed up the entire stream. Unbeknownst to all, the whole water course filtered through eight hundred pounds of rotting meat on the way to that fine swimming hole downstream.

So much for crystal clear mountain streams being safe to drink from!

How to Make Water Safe to Drink

Now that I have convinced you to consider all sources of water as contaminated until treated, I would like to suggest the best way to make water safe to drink. Once again I am sure to be stirring up a hornets nest of dissent on this subject but I stand by what I write as proven beyond doubt. Try to release any preconceived notions you may have as you read what follows.

The miracle of modern advertising would have you believe that the portable water filters on the market today will remove nearly all pathogens and disease causing organisms from water. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, studies have conclusively shown water filters vary a great deal in the types and amount of organisms they are able to filter. And that is when the water filters are functioning properly and users correctly operate and maintain them. A tall order indeed, especially in the field during adverse conditions.

Would you drink water from a filter that is removing only 85% of water borne disease organisms? Chances are the water filter you use isn’t even doing that well.

Various chemicals used to treat water also lack the ability to destroy 100% of disease causing organisms in water. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article and will be covered in a future Survival Topic.

The manufacturers of chemicals and water filters don’t want you to know what the best way to make water safe to drink really is. That’s because its simple, inexpensive to operate, and they cannot sell it.

The fact is, the best way to make water safe for consumption will destroy or render inert 100% of disease causing organisms. What’s more, this process is readily available and nearly foolproof. It has been successfully used for centuries and remains hands down the best method of all: boiling.

How Long Does the Water Need to Boil?

Water does do not even have to reach the boiling point (about 212° F or 100° C at sea level) to be rendered safe to drink; Once the water temperature reaches 185° F (85° C) nearly all disease causing organisms have been destroyed. The only reason you typically get water up to the boiling point is you probably do not have a thermometer handy to measure the water temperature. Boiling is proof positive the water is hot enough to make it safe to drink.

You can also throw out the myth that you must boil water longer at higher elevations. The boiling point of water even on Mount Everest is still high enough to destroy all disease causing organisms even before the water has started to boil.

For more information on boiling water to make it safe to drink read the breakthrough Survival Topic “How Long Do you Need to Boil Water?”.

In conclusion:

  • Consider water from any source as contaminated with disease causing organisms.
  • By far the best way to treat water is by boiling it.
    • You only have to bring the water to a boil.
    • Don’t waste fuel; there is no need to boil water for 10-minutes, 5-minutes, or even 1-minute.
    • Once it is boiling all disease causing organisms have been destroyed or rendered inert some time earlier.
    • Even on Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, once water reaches the boiling point it is safe to drink.