A Guide to Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in An Emergency
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Do you ever consider how you’d cope in a drinking water emergency? Most of us don’t—until a crisis hits, and we’re left scrambling to find clean drinking water. It’s time to change that.
We can’t survive without clean drinking water for long, so having enough is vital when your water supply is interrupted or compromised, like during a massive earthquake, flood, or zombie apocalypse.
In this short guide, we’ll share some simple and practical tips to help you prepare for drinking water emergencies. We’ll cover everything from treating your water to storing it properly and ensuring it stays fresh and safe to drink.
What is a Drinking Water Emergency, and What Can Cause It?
A drinking water emergency occurs when the usual water supply in an area is interrupted or becomes unsafe for drinking, perhaps due to any of the following:
- Disasters (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes)
- Water supply system disruption or loss of pressure due to pipe bursts, water main breaks, repairs, or malfunctions at the water treatment plant.
- Contamination events (chemical spills, bacterial outbreaks)
Disasters, in particular, can cause power outages. So, if you’re a private well user, your well pump likely won’t work without power; therefore, you won’t have running water in your home. Public water customers may also experience disruptions in their water supplies, like what happened in the Texas water crisis in 2021.
As you probably saw or heard on the news, a brutal winter storm swept across regions of the Lone Star state, knocking water treatment plants offline and leaving almost half the population without access to clean running water. The taps ran dry in many homes, finding bottled water was nearly impossible, and some people had to boil snow.
Advisories Commonly Issued in a Drinking Water Emergency
During drinking water emergencies, public health officials may issue crucial notifications about the safety and quality of the drinking water in your community. These advisories can vary in meaning and severity, so here are the three most common types:
1. Boil Water Advisory (BWA)
A boil water advisory is issued when there’s a chance your water supply contains bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other potentially harmful microbes. As such, health authorities will instruct you to bring the water to a rolling boil for at least one minute (or 3 minutes at elevations above 6,500 feet) before drinking it, using it for cooking, making ice, or brushing your teeth until the advisory is lifted.
2. Do Not Drink Advisory
This one is more serious than a BWA. As its name implies, a Do Not Drink advisory advises residents not to drink or use the water for cooking, baking, preparing beverages, brushing their teeth, etc. That’s because there may be harmful stuff in your water that boiling can’t remove or fix. You’ll need to find another source of drinking water.
3. Do Not Use Advisory
A Do Not Use advisory warns not to use your tap water for any purpose. The water may be tainted with harmful elements that are unsafe to drink and harmful if exposed to the skin or inhaled.
How to Treat Tap Water for Use in An Emergency
Access to clean drinking water in an emergency isn’t just about quenching your thirst; it’s also about ensuring your water is free of harmful contaminants that could jeopardize your health and safety. So, the first order of business should be to find out exactly what’s in your drinking water.
Find Out What’s in Your Water
Before treating your water, you’ll want to know what contamination issues you’re dealing with, if any, and the most effective ways to address them. Here’s how you can achieve this:
1. Obtain a water quality report.
If your water comes from a municipality, your water provider or local health department should be testing it routinely to ensure contaminant levels fall within safe ranges. So, please request a copy of their latest water quality report or search for it online.
Your water quality report should include vital information, such as any potential issues or contaminants in your water supply and details about specific pollutants found in the water, especially those that have exceeded regulatory limits or have health implications.
2. Get your water tested.
If a private well supplies water to your home, you won’t get a water quality report, as the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells. That means you’ll have to get your water tested independently. Some counties offer free testing, but if yours don’t, consider purchasing a water test kit from a state-certified laboratory in your area that does water testing. Prices will vary depending on the laboratory and the test(s), but most people consider the cost reasonable for the thoroughness and accuracy of the tests.
Treating Your Water
If you have tested your tap water or have reasons to believe it is unsafe, you should treat the water before using it for drinking, preparing food, brushing your teeth, or for any other purpose that involves ingesting some or all of the water. Keep scrolling as we briefly explain common ways to treat your drinking water.
1. Boil the water.
Boiling the water is an old-school trick that helps purify water. The scorching temperature destroys disease-causing germs, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Please note, however, that boiling won’t remove chemicals, metals, oils, toxins, sewage, or other contaminants. Also, if the water is cloudy before boiling it, you should first filter it through a clean cloth, paper towel, or coffee filter or allow it to settle, then draw off the clear water and follow the steps below:
- Bring the water to a rolling boil in a pot or electric kettle for one full minute.
- Cover the boiled water as it cools, then store it as instructed below.
- Store the water in sanitized containers with tight covers.
Caution: Drinking boiled well water with high nitrate concentrations (>10 mg/L) can be dangerous for young children and pregnant women. So, if you suspect nitrate is present or a test confirms it, use an alternative water source for cooking, drinking, and preparing infant formula for children six months of age and younger.
2. Purify the water with liquid household bleach.
Boiling the water won’t always be the best option, as it can consume a lot of energy that can add up over time, especially if you have a large family. If that’s your situation, you can disinfect small quantities of water by adding a chemical disinfectant, such as liquid household bleach. Like boiling, household bleach won’t remove chemicals or toxins. However, it will kill germs—except more resistant ones, such as the parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia.
Ideally, the liquid bleach should contain 5%-9% sodium hypochlorite, so check the label for the exact percentage. Also, avoid bleach that has perfumes, dyes, and other additives.
To disinfect the water with bleach:
- Pour the unpurified water into a clean container.
- Add approximately 1/8 teaspoon of plain unscented liquid bleach per gallon (16 cups) of water. If the water is cloudy before adding the bleach, add about 1/4 teaspoon per gallon.
- Stir the mixture well and let it sit for about 30 minutes to allow it to destroy any microorganisms in the water. You should notice a slight chlorine smell in the disinfected water. If not, repeat the dosage and let it stand for another 15 minutes before using.
- Store the water in clean, sanitized containers.
3. Filter the water.
Microbes like bacteria or viruses are just one of many pollutants that make drinking water unsafe to drink and use. For this reason, you’ll need something that can eliminate a broad range of contaminants from your drinking water. This is where a water filter comes in.
Water filter systems generally use a combination of technologies and filtration stages to remove unwanted elements from water. For example, some reverse osmosis water filters use sediment filtration, carbon filtration, and reverse osmosis to eliminate up to 99% of specific contaminants in water, including:
- Heavy Metals: Aluminum, Barium, Beryllium, Cadmium, Calcium, Chromium, Copper, Iron, Lead, Magnesium, Manganese, Mercury, Silver, Thallium, Zinc
- Ions: Arsenic, Chloride, Fluoride, Nitrate, Potassium, Radium, Selenium, Sodium, Sulfate
- Chemicals: Chlorine and Chloramine, Chlorine Byproducts (Trihalomethanes (THMs), Haloacetic Acids (HAAs)), Pesticides and Herbicides (Atrazine, glyphosate, 2,4-D), Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (Antibiotics, Hormones, Caffeine)
- Radionuclides: Radium and Uranium
There are many other home water filters to choose from—whole-house carbon filters, water distillers, and UV treatment systems, to name a few. They come in all shapes and sizes, with different price tags, functions, etc., and targeting various contaminants. So, you might want to check out this article about the best water filtration systems for your home. It’ll explain how water filters work and help you find the one that best suits your needs.
Storing Drinking Water for Use in an Emergency
Unless you plan to stock up on bottled water, you’ll need to safely store the treated tap water for it to be clean and safe when needed.
How Much Water Should You Store?
While everyone will have different needs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends storing at least one gallon of water for each person in your household daily—two quarts for drinking and two for food preparation and sanitation. The agency also suggests storing enough for at least two weeks and perhaps even more if you or anyone in your household is ill, pregnant, have children or pets, or live in a hot climate.
Choosing a Container
What you store the water in will have much to do with the resulting water quality. It’s best to use FDA-approved food-grade storage containers, as they won’t pass toxic substances like BPA into the water. You can find these containers at surplus or camping supply stores. And if you’re unsure if the container is food-grade, don’t hesitate to ask the manufacturer.
If you’re not able to use a food-grade container, be sure the one you use:
- Has a snug-fitting lid.
- Is made of tough, unbreakable materials (definitely not glass).
- Has a narrow opening, if possible, so you can pour water out easily.
- Is stackable to conserve space.
Oh, and a little tip: Avoid containers previously used to store toxic substances such as bleach, pesticides, or oil. And don’t forget to wash the containers thoroughly before filling them.
If you have a bathtub and don’t plan to evacuate, purchase a capped plastic bladder and fill it with tap water. Usually, this storage container is designed with the same shape as your bathtub, so it’ll fit perfectly in most tubs, where it’ll keep water fresh for up to 12 weeks. Otherwise, you can fill the tub with water but only use the water for flushing the toilet and washing.
Washing and Sanitizing the Container
Your water is only as clean as the container you store it in. So, make sure those emergency lids and containers are squeaky clean. Wash them with hot, soapy water, then rinse thoroughly with more hot water.
Next, follow the steps below to sanitize the container:
- Pour a quart of water and a teaspoon of unscented bleach into the container.
- Cap the container tightly and shake well so the bleach solution touches every nook and cranny.
- Allow it to sit for at least 30 seconds, then empty it.
- Let the container air-dry or rinse it with the clean water you plan to store.
Storing the Container
Here are some tips for storing the treated water from your home:
- Add one or two drops of liquid bleach per gallon to maintain water quality while in storage.
- Securely cap all containers and label them with the preparation date.
- Keep containers in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
- Avoid storing water supplies, especially in plastic containers, near gasoline, kerosene, pesticides, or similar substances, as their vapors can penetrate the plastic.
- Ensure that storage shelving is solid and stable because water weighs more than eight pounds per gallon.
- Consider replacing stored water supplies every six months, especially if the water hasn’t been commercially treated. Use the old water for non-drinking purposes, such as flushing toilets, washing your car, watering plants, etc.
- If space is limited, store the water containers under your bed or put a plank and cloth on a few of them and create an ottoman.
Using the Water
In a drinking water emergency, the last thing you want is to risk contaminating the water you’ve treated and carefully stored. So, when taking the water from the containers, you must be extra careful. If you’re using a scoop or other device, use a clean one each time you dip it in the water to avoid contaminating it. Also, avoid touching the water or the inside of the container with your hands, and never scoop out water with your bare hands.
Can I Use Bottled Water in a Drinking Water Emergency?
Many popular bottled water brands have been found to contain some of the same contaminants as tap water, including the infamous PFAS chemicals. However, water contamination from these pollutants in bottled water would likely be so low that it would take exposure over time to see any adverse effects.
So, if bottled water is your only option, use it until the emergency is over. As soon as possible, consider returning to drinking filtered water or installing a water filter system in your home to ensure a more reliable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective source of clean drinking water.
Clean drinking water is something we take for granted until our supplies are interrupted or contaminated. Since we can’t go without it for long, it only makes sense to store enough of it and ensure it remains clean and fresh until it’s ready for use. Whether it’s a natural disaster, contamination concern, or supply disruption due to repairs, the guidelines above will help ensure you and your family have clean, safe drinking water.