Anton van Leeuwenhoek Anton van Leeuwenhoek

A boiling issue

Playing it safe with wild water

By Christopher Nyerges 08/27/2009

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When collecting drinking water in the wild, it’s best to play it safe and assume it’s contaminated. While boiling is generally considered the best way to purify water and neutralize contaminants, there are a few additional precautions you should take.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutchman considered the father of microbiology, discovered centuries ago that some organisms — typhoid spores, in particular — can survive boiling. Fortunately, the majority of organisms that cause sickness in humans are killed in boiling water. Moreover, encountering typhoid in water is rare and typically happens only after a hurricane or some other disaster pushes sewage into drinking water.

Though uncommon, it’s still possible to find boil-resistant typhoid spores in open sources
of water.

But how long would it take to actually kill those spores? The answer is based on such factors as temperature, exposure to sunlight, the amount of spores in the water and the availability of secondary purification. In areas with heavily polluted water, it may take up to 20 minutes to break down the casings that protect typhoid spores.

Hydrologist Talal Bala’a of Los Angeles recommends a three-step purification process for water found in the wild.
1.    Filter open sources of water through a material — cotton, for example — to remove larger particulate matter.
2.    Let the water settle and siphon out the clear water.
3.    Boil the water.

Water purification in the wild starts well before the water begins to boil. According to Bala’a, one should also remember the three-sense water observation rule, using eye, nose and tongue.

“Always begin with an obvious, common-sense observation of the water,” said Bala’a. “Begin with these simple observations: Is the water cloudy? Are there things in the water? Does it smell good? Do you detect the odor of chemicals? Do you detect the odor of rotten material? And lastly, does it taste alright? Is there any astringency? Do you detect anything unpleasant?”
If you suspect the water is impure, follow the basic steps of  water purification listed above.

You’ve survived a devastating storm. Nothing is as you knew it the day before. You need water, and water is everywhere, but most of it is unsafe to drink. What do you do in this worst-case scenario?

First, find two relatively clean metal containers and collect water from rooftops or from barrels and buckets. Let the water settle until it appears clear. Then pour or siphon the water into another container, filtering it through finely woven cotton. Now make a fire. Considering this is a worst-case scenario, let the water boil 20 minutes before consuming. Though this process is not foolproof, it will provide a degree of safety against Hepatitis A, dysentery and other illnesses commonly spread by drinking contaminated water.
Remember: If you can’t boil, use chemicals specifically designed for disinfection.n

Nyerges’ latest book, “Self-Sufficient Home,” will be available in bookstores in September. He can be reached about his classes and books at


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