In an emergency, not all water has to be purified to the same degree. I call this the “Hierarchy of Water Needs”.
Think about the different uses for water…
- Water for drinking
- Water for medical purposes such as cleaning wounds, sterilizing medical equipment, etc.
- Water for cooking
- Water for personal hygiene
- Water for cleaning surfaces
At the top of the list is drinking water—specifically drinking water for infants, newborns, young children, the elderly, and people whose immune systems have been compromised. More than 100 people died during the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993. Most of the deaths were the very young, the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems. In an emergency make sure the most vulnerable people drink only the highest purity water with absolute certainty of biological protection. In other words these people should drink distilled water or brand name bottled water, such as SmartWater or AquaFina. Avoid other types of water if at all possible.
Also near the top of the list is water for medical purposes. See the previous recommendations regarding water quality.
Next, and still extremely important, is drinking water for adults. It’s very important that you protect yourself from the different types of contaminants that can be in your water. This is especially true in an emergency situation because the infrastructure that keeps us safe can fail, possibly allowing dangerous levels of biological, chemical, and even radioactive contaminants in the water. Again, you should use distilled water or bottled water. If your source water seems to be quite clean and there are no chemicals or heavy metals in the water, you may be able to drink water that has been properly boiled or chlorinated, according to the Red Cross recommendations.
Water for cooking is also important. If you are cooking soup, pasta, or vegetables directly in water, you will ingest this water so take care to have good quality water. Always start with the cleanest water available and, as long as there are no chemicals or heavy metals in the water, prolonged boiling may be sufficient. If you are worried about the quality of your source water, you can filter the water first using a good filter, such as a Berkey or Katadyne, or use distilled or bottled water.
Next comes water for hygiene purposes. It’s important to wash your hands and other parts of your anatomy in order to keep clean and not spread germs. It’s very important to use chlorine in this instance, because chlorine has a residual disinfection effect. Start with the best water you have available, filter it or even boil it if needed, then add chlorine to the water in accordance to the Red Cross recommendation.
Water for cleaning surfaces. Cleaning tables, dishes, cutlery, toilets, etc is also very important, because you may find yourself in unsanitary conditions (toilets don’t flush). In this case you want to use chlorinated water, but since you aren’t consuming this water, you will be able to use a higher concentration of chlorine in this water.
Keep the purpose of your water in mind when you are treating water in an emergency situation. Use your highest purity water for the most important needs.