OA Guide to Water Purification

part of

The Backpacker's Field Manual

by Rick Curtis

first edition published by Random House March, 1998


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This material is taken from Chapter 4 - Hygiene & Water Purification from The Backpackers Field Manual by Rick Curtis. For more details on this exciting book check out The Backpacker's Field Manual Page.

This material is provided by the author for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training or experience. Princeton University and the author assume no liability for any individual's use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein. When going into outdoors it is your responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience, and equipment to travel safely. This material may not be reproduced in any form for commercial or Internet publication without express written permission of the author. Copyright 1999, all rights reserved, Random House Publishing & Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.


Water Purification

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

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.)

Chemical Purification

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

Iodine Treatment

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:

Chlorine Treatment

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.

Tricks of the Trail

  • Backups Always have at least one backup method for water purification in case one fails. This can be any combination of methods. I’m the cautious type, so I always have two backup methods: water filter and 2% tincture of iodine or Polar Pure iodine crystals. And I can always boil the water. If boiling is your backup method, make sure you have enough fuel.
  • Fix the Taste Adding vitamin C (about 50 milligrams) to iodized water completely eliminates any taste or color of iodine. You must wait until the iodine has purified the water before adding the vitamin C. The vitamin C in drink mixes like Tang™ has the same effect.
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Filtration

There are a number of devices on the market that filter out microorganisms. A water filter pumps water through a microscopic filter that is rated for a certain-size organism. The standard size rating is the micron (the period at the end of this sentence is about 600 microns). Depending on the micron rating of the filter, smaller organisms (like viruses) can pass through. Be cautious when selecting a filter. You should know what potential organisms you need to treat for. You don’t want to go to an area where a virus like hepatitis A is present in the water (a problem in some developing countries) with a filter that will handle only a larger organism like Giardia.

Common microorganisms and the filter size needed:

Organism Examples General Size Filter Type Particle Size Rating
Protozoa Giardia, Cryptosporidium 5 microns or larger Water filter 1.0–4.0 microns
Bacteria Cholera, E. coli, Salmonella 0.2–0.5 microns Microfilter 0.2–1.0 microns
Viruses Hepatitis A, rotavirus, Norwalk virus 0.004 microns Water purifier to 0.004 microns

There are two basic types of filters (descriptions of several popular models begin on the facing page).

Note: There is a difference between a water filter and a water purifier. Filters do not filter out viruses, but there are water purifiers, like the PUR Scout, that pass the water through both a filter and an iodine compound that kills any smaller organisms that have passed through the filter. These purifiers kill all microorganisms down to 0.004 microns; however, the filter should not be used by people who are allergic to iodine.

Common Practices for Using a Water Filter

Tricks of the Trail

Some water filters come as sealed cartridges, making it impossible to inspect the actual filter cartridge. If the filter takes a serious fall, it could crack internally. If the filter inside cracks, unfiltered water can flow through the crack. Treat your filter with care, and if it takes a significant impact, throw it away. Remember, any intake hose from a water filter has been submerged in unfiltered water. Treat this hose as "contaminated" and keep it in a separate plastic bag.

This material is provided by the author for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training or experience. Princeton University and the author assume no liability for any individual's use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein. When going into outdoors it is your responsibility to have the proper knowledge, experience, and equipment to travel safely. This material may not be reproduced in any form for commercial or Internet publication without express written permission of the author. Copyright 1999, all rights reserved, Random House Publishing & Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University.