By Rehan Iqbal
Most of us are aware that boiling water kills bacteria, viruses, and parasites, collectively known as pathogens. Anyone who has participated in survival exercises, or the boy scouts, knows that we should boil water from streams, natural wells, and lakes before drinking it.
The question still remains: does boiling water make it safe to drink?
The Truth about Boiling Water for Your Safety
The CDC and many other health organizations recommend boiling water if you are unsure of its origins. A municipal water supply is treated to make it safe to drink. This means that there is no need to boil tap water before drinking. Though there can be other harmful toxins in tap water that are not affected by boiling the water.
It is important to note that boiling water only kills biological organisms. There are many other contaminants in water besides bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Heavy metals like lead, harmful chemicals from industrial waste, and a plethora of other dangers lurk in open water supplies. These cannot be removed by boiling.
While boiling water is a great way to prevent disease and stomach disorders from biological organisms, it is not a guarantee that the water is 100% safe to drink. Regardless of these facts, it is still advisable to boil water that may be contaminated to avoid illness. If you are unable to boil your water, there are few other ways to kill pathogens in water.
How to Boil Water to Make it Safe
Most micro-organisms can’t survive for longer 30-seconds in temperatures higher than 160°F. At boiling point (212°F), you can be assured that the water will be safe from infection. It is recommended that you boil the water for at least 1 minute to ensure that no organisms are able to survive. At altitudes higher than 6,500 feet, you should boil the water for 3 minutes or more.
Allow the water to cool and store it in sanitized containers. If you want to improve the taste of boiled water, you can add a pinch of salt for quart of water.
Why Water Treatment is Essential
There are many contaminants that occur naturally in water and just as many that are a result of industry, agriculture, and mining. Some chemicals, like chlorine and fluoride are used in the treatment of water for municipal supply. While not all of these are dangerous, they can be harmful if consumed in great enough qualities or have other unwanted effects.
What are the Dangers of Drinking Untreated Water?
Around the world, over 500 hundred thousand people die from diarrhea caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites in untreated water. Some pathogens may cause other health complications. All these medical conditions can be avoided by boiling the water or by utilizing other antibacterial treatments.
There are many types of pathogens that are common in natural water supplies:
Heavy metals cannot be removed by boiling water. Generally, reverse osmosis and active carbon filters are considered the best way to ensure that drinking water is safe from heavy metal contamination. These are naturally occurring minerals. Their presence in water supplies is exasperated by extensive use in industry, mining, and agriculture.
Heavy metals commonly found in water are:
Hard minerals, like calcium and magnesium, are not a serious health risk. Water containing these minerals is known as hard water which can cause irritation to the skin and eyes. Hard water also stains items that are cleaned using the water, like laundry and dishes.
One of the greatest concerns about using hard water is that it blocks water pipes and damages appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, and coffee machines. It will make the water appear cloudy and can affect the taste.
Hard minerals cannot be controlled by boiling the water. A water softener or conditioner is required to remove these minerals from the water.
There many chemical toxins found in water, and these cannot be removed by boiling the water. Some of the chemicals found in water occur naturally, while others are manufactured or added to water in some treatment facilities. These would include:
How to Ensure that Your Water is Safe to Drink
While boiling water is a good way to take care of many dangerous contaminants, it won’t ensure 100% safe drinking water. In the end, only water filtration will guarantee your safety. The type of water filters that you should use will depend on which contaminants you want to remove.
Reverse osmosis (RO) water filters are about the most effective way of treating water. Water is filtered by forcing it through an RO membrane which has incredibly small micro-pores. The membrane is able to capture most pathogens and bacteria, as well as around 90% of all known contaminants. The contaminated water is flushed away into the drain.
If the RO membrane only removes around 90% of contaminants, what happens to the other 10%?
In most cases, an RO filter will be satisfactory as it can be up 99% safe, depending on what impurities exist in the water. Usually, a second stage of active carbon filtration will improve the taste and color of the water by removing chemicals like chlorine and many other chemicals that can be harmful, like pesticides, and industrial chemicals.
Reverse osmosis removes over 99% of heavy metals, like lead, from water. The small amount that remains will not be harmful if consumed. This means that, for general purposes, a basic RO filtration system will provide perfectly safe drinking water. If you have water that has exceptionally high levels of chemical contaminants, additional active carbon filters can be used to ensure that the water is completely free of harmful chemicals
To remove bacteria and other pathogens, an additional anti-bacterial filter can be used. UV or silver filters are the best ways to ensure that your water has no harmful organisms. These filters are as effective as boiling your water, without all the hassles and time spent waiting for it to cool.
There are additional benefits to using RO water filtration systems beyond simply making it safe to drink. You can use a water softener to remove hard minerals and prevent limescale in your pipes and appliances. A water alkalizer stage will utilize sophisticate electrolysis to increase the PH of the water and you can even add healthy minerals in a remineralization stage of RO filtration.
Of course, a reverse osmosis filtration system, with all the stages that I’ve mentioned, is expensive and is not portable. This is a solution for the water in your home. Portable filters are available for camping and hiking. Although these are not as effective as a whole house RO system, they will provide you with safe drinking water whilst enjoying the great outdoors.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast and enjoy venturing into the wild frontier, there’s a good chance you’ll need to purify your drinking water at times. Before drinking water from a river, well, or lake, you should (at very least) boil it. Alternatively, you can use a portable water filter.
People who rely on well water for their homes may not want to boil all their water. Besides, there are many other contaminants in the water that won’t be removed by boiling it. If you use well water in your home, your best option would be a reverse osmosis filter, with additional stages if needed.
In order to properly treat well water, you should have it tested in a laboratory to determine what contaminants you need to be aware of.