When Water Isn't Safe: Understanding A Boil Water Advisory

Sometimes, in times of emergency or natural disasters, the infrastructure that handles, treats, and transports water can become compromised. When this occurs, the government of the area may issue a boil water advisory. This means that water must be boiled before it is consumed, because it may be contaminated with chemicals, viruses, or harmful bacteria. While this may seem simple, there are some things you should know in case you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to boil water to make it potable.

A Serious Warning

Although the government issuing the advisory will always tell you why your water is no longer safe, you should always take any boil water notice seriously. Even if water looks and smells clean, it can carry pathogens that can make people seriously ill. Some of the more common pathogens include bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, viruses like hepatitis A, and microscopic parasites like Giardia lamblia

Safely Boiling And Storing Water

In order to make water safe, it is not enough to simply bring it a boil and then let it cool. You should allow water to boil on high heat for at least a minute before taking it off the stove. After removing the water from the heat, it's important to let the water cool completely before using it. If you have working electricity, you can use a fridge or freezer to help speed up the cooling process. However, if your electricity it not working, don't keep water in the fridge. Food may spoil and contaminate the water you just finished boiling. 

You can store boiled water in glass canning jars or another clean, seal-able container. Make sure you boil and store water for brushing teeth, cooking, and washing, as some contaminants are not healthy for the skin either.

Filters And Home Water Treatment

Some residents may have a water treatment system, such as distillation or reverse osmosis. However, if you have a system like this, you should still boil any water that comes through the system. While your system may be effective in removing chlorine and harmless additives, like iron, it may not be powerful enough to treat water the way the city normally treats it. Your system may not fully remove pathogens contained in sewage or floodwater.

However, because some water may still contain sediment or visible impurities, you may want invest in a simple filter, like those you would use to filter river water when camping, to remove anything that might make the water less pleasant to drink. Even though boiling makes these impurities safe to drink, it's not very appetizing to drink water that has black flecks in it.

Finding Alternatives

If you can't boil water, or would like to find another alternative to boiling your water to make it safe, you can:

  • stock up on several gallons of bottled water. The best way to store water is in large, sealed bottles, like those you may find at an office water cooler. You can, of course, store or buy flats of personal water bottles as well.
  • drive to another city that has not received a boil water advisory. Bring several containers with you and fill these up from any tap.
  • hire a company to bring potable water to your home. Typically, water delivery companies provide both clean, good water and tanks in which to store them. If you have the space, you could purchase or rent a tank that will store water in case of emergencies. This is especially useful in areas that have a high probability of disaster, such as coastal communities, large cities where power outages are common, or towns in northern Canada, where infrastructure can be affected by extreme temperature changes. Under a boil water advisory, these companies will obtain water from an uncontaminated source.