Dipping your head into a cold mountain stream and taking a long refreshing drink is an experience that has basically vanished from the wilderness areas of America. With the increased use of the wilderness there has also been an increase in the amount of bacteriological contamination of backcountry water supplies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 90 percent of the world’s water is contaminated in some way. There are a variety of microscopic organisms that can contaminate water supplies and cause potentially serious, even fatal, illnesses among wilderness travelers.
The major danger in the backcountry from these infections is fluid loss due to diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to hypovolemic shock and possibly death (see Diarrhea or Vomiting, page 315; Fluid Electrolyte Replacement, page 286; Shock, page 238).
In order to drink the water, you should be prepared to treat it.
There are numerous methods of water purification, described below in order of effectiveness. Remember, however, that infections can also be spread through poor personal hygiene, something that purifying your water won’t prevent.
Biologically Contaminated vs. Toxic Water
Biologically contaminated water is water that contains microorganisms such as Giardia (a common microorganism that, if not killed, leads to intestinal disorders), bacteria, or viruses that can lead to infections (see Gastrointestinal Infections, page 316).
Toxic water sources contain chemical contamination from pesticide runoffs, mine tailings, and so on. Boiling, filtering, or chemically treating water can remove or kill microorganisms, but it will not remove chemical toxins. This is also the case when using a solar still (see page 223).
Boiling is the most certain way of killing all microorganisms. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, water temperatures above 160� F (70� C) kill all pathogens within 30 minutes and above 185� F (85� C) within a few minutes. So in the time it takes for the water to reach the boiling point (212� F or 100� C) from 160� F (70� C), all pathogens will be killed, even at high altitude.
To be extra safe, let the water boil rapidly for one minute, especially at higher altitudes since water boils at a lower temperature (see page 68.)
There are two types of chemical treatment: those using iodine and those using chlorine. There are a variety of products on the market, so follow the directions on the bottle. Be advised that many of the tablets have an expiration date and become ineffective after that point.
Also, once the bottle has been opened, the tablets must be used within a certain period. When in doubt, buy a new bottle. Remember that chemical purification methods may only be partially effective, depending on the water temperature.
General Chemical Treatment Procedures
- The effectiveness of all chemical treatment of water is related to the temperature,
- pH level, and clarity of the water.
- Cloudy water often requires higher concentrations of chemical to disinfect.
- If the water is cloudy or filled with large particles, strain it, using a cloth, before treatment. Large particles, if swallowed, may be purified only "on the outside."
- Add the chemical to the water and swish it around to aid in dissolving. Splash some of the water with the chemical onto the lid and the threads of the water bottle so that all water areas are treated.
- The water should sit for at least 30 minutes after adding the chemical to allow purification to occur. If using tablets, let the water sit for 30 minutes after the tablet has dissolved.
- The colder the water, the less effective the chemical is as a purifying agent. Research has shown that at 50� F (10� C), only 90 percent of Giardia cysts were inactivated after 30 minutes of exposure. If the water temperature is below 40� F (4� C), double the treatment time before drinking. It is best if water is at least 60� F (16� C) before treating. You can place the water in the sun to warm it before treating.
- Chemically treated water can be made to taste better by pouring it back and forth between containers, after it has been adequately treated. Other methods include adding a pinch of salt per quart or adding flavorings (e.g., lemonade mix, etc.) after the chemical treatment period.
Iodine is light sensitive and must always be stored in a dark bottle. It works best if the water is over 68� F (21� C).
Iodine has been shown to be more effect than chlorine-based treatments in inactivating Giardia cysts.
Be aware that some people are allergic to iodine and cannot use it as a form of water purification. Persons with thyroid problems or on lithum, women over fifty, and pregnant women should consult their physician prior to using iodine for purification.
Also, some people who are allergic to shellfish are also allergic to iodine. If someone cannot use iodine, use either a chlorine-based product or a non-iodine-based filter, such as the PUR Hiker Microfilter, MSR WaterWorks, or the Katadyn Water Filter.
Generally, the procedure is as follows:
- Liquid 2% Tincture of Iodine Add 5 drops per quart when the water is clear. Add 10 drops per quart when the water is cloudy.
- Polar Pure Iodine Crystals Fill the Polar Pure bottle with water and shake. The solution will be ready for use in one hour.
- Add the number of capfuls (per quart of water treated) listed on the bottle, based on the temperature of the iodine solution.
- The particle trap prevents crystals from getting into the water being treated. It is important to note that you are using the iodinesolution to treat the water, not the iodine crystals.
- The concentration of iodine in a crystal is poisonous and can burn tissue or eyes.
- Let the treated water stand for 30 minutes before drinking. In order to destroy Giardia cysts, the drinking water must be at least 68� F (20� C).
- The water can be warmed in the sun before treating or hot water can be added. Refill the treatment bottle after use so that the solution will be ready one hour later.
- Crystals in the bottle make enough solution to treat about 2,000 quarts. Discard the bottle when empty.
Chlorine can be used for persons with iodine allergies or restrictions. Remember that water temperature, sediment level, and contact time are all elements in killing microorganisms in the water. Halazone is an example of a chlorine tablet product. To use, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.