Water Quality: Looks Can be Deceiving

As I mentioned in a prior article, I tend to be one of those who are highly susceptible to “GI bugs”. Whether due to water or food borne disease, I always seem to get at least a little diarrhea on any travel outside of the USA (and to some places in the USA). I recently heard a statistic at the Summer Wilderness Medical Society meeting that has given me hope that I may yet be able to travel without diarrhea. The quote was that up to 40% of the world’s “bottled” water may actually be tap water. That blew me away. I have always practiced extremely careful water discipline when travelling. No ice for me, thank you. Yet, I couldn’t always determine a source for either food or water contamination. Now I may have a solution. But before we get into that, let’s talk a little about water borne illnesses and prevention.

The lack of safe drinking water accounts for 90% of all diarrhea cases throughout the world. As many as 2.4 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water. Cholera, Salmonella and Giardia are just a few of the many bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause water borne illness and diarrhea. We will not get into the specifics of each of these or the exact treatments as these can vary based upon your personal medical history, where you are travelling, etc. and should be discussed with your travel medical professional or primary care physician. That being said, know that as few as one viral organism need be present in your drinking water to cause illness.

With that horrifying thought, let’s talk about prevention. Until recently, my go to was bottled water. The lid seems good and you are good to go with brushing your teeth, drinking, washing hands, etc. Now, I will be utilizing secondary methods of decontamination for all water. Let’s first talk about in areas where you have access to reliable power sources. For these, I will be using the SteriPen. This handy little device is very portable, light weight and extremely easy to use. Essentially, make sure it is charged, place it in the clear liquid and turn it on. It will auto off and you are good to go. It will treat a liter of water in about a minute or less (48 seconds per the package insert). It is important to make sure the water is clear and free of dirt particles as those particles can protect bacteria and other harmful bugs from the light exposure.

If I am not in such an environment and am operating in a more austere setting, there are a few different options that I can go to. First, we have to make sure the water is relatively free from particulate matter. A great deal of this can be prevented by carefully lowering your closed water container under the water surface and then opening to allow for subsurface water without stirring up bottom sediment (assuming a deep enough body of water). As a side note, be sure to clean the outside of your drinking bottle to remove any bacteria or other germs that may have gotten on to it during the filling process (better yet, use this as your dirty water collector and another bottle to drink from). If despite your best effort, the water remains quite dirty, an initial filtering step can then be performed with a clean cotton towel or handkerchief or a coffee filter. Even if you plan on using a water filter, this pre-filtering step can extend the life of your filter and decrease the likelihood of infection. Now, with relatively clear water, you have lots of options. Let’s talk about a few.

As mentioned, there are lots of filters out there. One that I plan to use on my next adventure (headed to Puerto Rico in October) is the Grayl Geopress. It is rated for 99.999% removal of all organisms. This is not something you will find with most water filters. The biggest issue for these other filters is with missing viruses. Feel free to look around on Amazon or at REI for lots of other offers from Katadyn, Sawyer, Lifestraw and the like.

Even if you have no filter and no electricity, all is still not lost. Many chemical sources, including household bleach, can be used to disinfect water. Usually 2-10 drops (enough to provide for a chlorine smell) in a liter of water is sufficient. Note that after allowing this to set for 60 minutes, ascorbic or citric acid can be added to improve the taste of the water. I will also let you peruse the internet for all the other options to include pool cleaners, iodine and lots of commercially available tablets with more or less “taste”.

Finally, if all else fails and you have a fire-proof container, a method for fire starting and water, you too can drink disinfected/sterilized water. While most research suggests just reaching the boiling point is sufficient to kill all organisms, the CDC still recommends a rolling boil of one minute as an added safety measure. Just remember that none of these techniques removes hazardous chemicals, nuclear waste or the like.

I hope you found this enjoyable. If you have any suggestions for future topics or questions on this or any other area I have covered, please leave a comment in the comments section.

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