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Water Purification Methods

by Lisa Parris
  • Overview

    Every year millions of international travelers suffer from illness and disease caused by the ingestion of contaminated water. To protect yourself while traveling, consider your drinking water carefully, don't forget about water used to brush your teeth and rinse your food, and be prepared to use at least one method of water purification.
  • Don't Drink the Water

    When traveling overseas, you should always assume the worst. Even in Europe, unless you know otherwise, it can be unsafe to drink the local tap water. Many countries do not have the same standards for safety and sanitation that we are accustomed to. Drinking it can pose serious risks to your health. Clean water in sealed, clear plastic bottles is safe to drink and easy to obtain almost every where in the world. But in some remote areas, local tap water may be the only available option. In this situation, some form of purification will be necessary to ensure the water is safe to drink.
    Just because it looks clean, doesn't mean it is.
  • Risks

    Water is a wonderful, welcoming environment for many microorganisms. Some of the more common infections travelers acquire from drinking unpurified water are: Amoebic Dysentery, Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Hepatitis A, Giardiasis, Escherichia Coli and Shingellosis. Contamination is generally caused by animal and human wastes being introduced into the water supply. Contaminants carry with them a lively variety of illness inducing creatures such as bacteria, parasites, helminthes (worms), and viruses. To purify your water, you must disinfect it to kill the microorganisms or remove them mechnically. There are three main methods of doing this: boiling, chemical treatment, and filtration.
  • Boiling

    The easiest and most reliable method of water purification is boiling. Uncertain water should be boiled for five minutes and allowed to cool at room temperature. Do not add ice which might be contaminated. Once cool, the purified water should be stored in clean, sealed containers. For altitudes above 6000 feet, boil for an extra three minutes. The main problem with boiling water first is; many travelers don't have a stove or a pot handy when they need one. It can be useful for those who are camping, but can be a real sticky wicket for those staying in a hotel. Also, both the water and the container it is stored in must be sterilized in order to avoid re-contamination of the water.
  • Chemical Treatment

    Those who are unable to boil their water can purify it chemically. The most common water purification chemical is iodine. It is available in tablet, crystal, or liquid form and will destroy most of the microorganisms found in contaminated water. Once iodine is added to the water, you must wait 30 minutes to use it. Water purified with iodine can have an unpleasant taste, though this can be improved by adding vitamin C. This method should not be used by people with thyroid problems or allergies to iodine, or by women who are pregnant. Also, Iodine is also ineffective against Cryptosporidium, unless the water is allowed to sit for 15 hours prior to use. If this is a common problem in the area you're visiting, it is wise to seek a different water purification method. Chlorine is another common chemical used to purify water. Known throughout the west for its use in swimming pools, it is less reliable than iodine, but is an option for those who seek an alternative.
  • Filtration

    If you are a long-term traveler, a filtration device is often the most economical method of water purification. Filters remove impurities from the water by straining them out. A .2 micron filter will remove all parasites and bacteria. It will also filter out most of the viruses, without waiting and without altering the taste of the water. With proper care and cleaning, filters can be used repeatedly, resulting in a cheap and effective long term solution. In areas where the risk of viral contamination is high, filtered water treated with iodine will give your safe drinking water, without the wait. Filtering removes the larger, tougher skinned organisms, eliminating the 30 minute iodine effectiveness window.
  • Prevention

    If you are planning a trip through areas where the water sources are suspect, you can reduce your chances of illness by taking these precautions: -If you have no way of purifying water, drink canned or commercially bottled drinks such as soda. Choose well known international brands whenever possible. - If you buy bottled water, check the seal carefully. A garden hose, some empty bottles and a capper can be a valuable source of income in a third world country. - If not bottled beverages are available, order drinks made with boiled water, such as tea or coffee. - Beer and wine are considered safe to drink, though flavor and quality is highly variable. - Ice should not be used in beverages - Do not drink anything mixed with tap water- such as lemonade - Do not assume the water is safe just because it is treated with chlorine. It may not kill everything. - Decide on a method of water purification before you leave home and make sure you have the appropriate equipment with you. Unsafe water is a world wide problem, but with a little planning, it doesn't have to be a problem for you.

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