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Providing for the basics part 4: water treatment

Even clear running water can be full of disease causing parasites
Even clear running water can be full of disease causing parasites
courtesy of Dave Prosch

In my last article, I was discussing how to obtain water in and around your home during an emergency. However, finding water is just the beginning. Untreated water can contain all sorts of nasty bacteria and parasites. Waterborne illnesses like Beaver Fever (caused by the parasite Giardia) can make you wonder whether you really want to live through the emergency at hand. Any water collected after the breakdown of the main water supply should be purified before it is consumed or used for hygienic purposes.

Boiling water is actually the best worst case scenario water purifier but before we get into making a fire, let’s look at some of the ways you might treat questionable water quickly with items you probably already have laying around the house.

By far the easiest way to clean water is with a filter designed for that purpose and I’m not talking about the one screwed onto your tap. Commercial water filters are available in an assortment of styles from dirt cheap and disposable to expensive and semi permanent and everything in between. If you choose to get a filter, make sure you understand its limitations and don’t get creative with the directions. Follow all guidelines exactly.

Most manufacturers of water filters also make chemical treatments that come as tablets or drops. These gadgets are affordable, portable, easily stored and two boxes will get you through most interruption of service emergencies. If you don’t have access to any kind of commercially made purification system, don’t fret. Odds are your home is full of things that can do double duty as an emergency water purifier.

When collecting untreated water, do not splash the questionable water in your face, don’t wash your hands in it and definitely do not give it a taste test. Even clear running water can hide all sorts of nasty critters that can run amok in your system after sneaking in through a small cut or break in the skin you didn’t know you had. Always use separate containers to carry untreated and clean water. There is no point in going to the trouble of purifying a gallon of water if you’re just going to pour it right back into the bacteria filled jug it came from.

Bleach is good for more than just laundry. One gallon of unscented household bleach can purify up to 3,800 gallons of questionable water. However, the bleach used must be unscented and the water should be relatively clear. To treat water with bleach, begin by filtering the questionable water through several layers of cloth and then let it stand 15 to 30 minutes to let any solids sink to the bottom.

Siphon or spoon off the water at the top and add bleach at a rate of 8 drops per gallon or half a teaspoon per 5 gallons. Stir and let it sit for half and hour. After 30 minutes, if the water smells like bleach, it is most likely drinkable. If you cannot detect the smell of bleach, repeat the treatment. If, after 15 minutes you still cannot smell bleach, use an alternative treatment method.

Add one whole teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water to make a disinfectant solution. Rub your cooking pots and eating utensils down with this to help keep bugs and illness at bay when water supplies are short. A good way to remember these techniques is to tape a medicine dropper to the bleach bottle and write the bleach/water percentages next to it with a permanent marker.

A tincture of 2% iodine can also be used to treat water. Add 8 to 10 drops to one liter of water and let it sit at least 30 minutes. While the water won’t kill you, the taste might. Use this technique when nothing else is available. Still, far and away the best method for purifying water in an emergency is boiling. Boiling requires fire and that is where we will pick up next time.


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