Homesteading and self-reliance

Is it Okay to Use Non-Potable Water?

Nadia TamaraCamping, Do It Yourself, Emergency Preparedness, Hygiene, Water, Wilderness Survival 1 Comment

Water storage and purification

The issue of non potable water is rather complex. Water can be contaminated due to a wide range of circumstances. While there are many sources of water, not all the sources are reliable, that is why precautions must be taken into account before considering the use of it.

Water that is not treated can be dangerous because it might contain pollutants that can lead to immediate and/ or prolonged health risks.

Some obvious water sources to avoid are stagnant lakes or ponds, but less obvious sources where contamination might be present are rivers and rain catchment systems. This doesn’t mean that all untested water is unsafe, but it’s always recommended to err on the side of caution when you’re uncertain. This also doesn’t mean that all non-potable water should be wasted.

Just like potable water, non-potable water has many uses and can be recycled.

Is non-potable water a concern in the United States?

Although it may sound unrealistic at the moment, there may come a day when the water that runs out of your faucet is deemed unsafe. Perhaps a natural disaster destroys the city’s water supply, or a small scale contamination forces extra precautions upon the civilians. This is not something the news highlights often, but it is more common than we think, even in first-world countries.

Earlier this week, Michigan declared a state of emergency because a discovery was made of extremely high levels of the compound per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) in the city water. This contaminant is a chemical used in non-stick pans and as a fire resistant. It is known to cause cancer, thyroid disease, kidney damage, fertility issues, among other health problems. The biggest issue at this point is that the boiling method won’t disinfect the water. Instead, the evaporation causes a stronger concentration of the chemical. You can read all the details here

In 2017, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported almost half a million hospital admissions and 7,000 deaths in the United States due to waterborne diseases. These are very high numbers for a well developed country. Don’t rely on the freedom of a clean water supply. Drinking contaminated water can become life-threatening so take extra precautions when necessary or instructed, especially during emergencies and post-natural disasters.

The difference between potable and non-potable water

Potable water is safe and acceptable for human consumption.

Non-potable refers to any water that has not been treated or tested, therefore determined unsafe to consume. Non-potable water should not be ingested due to the risk of physical contamination. 

Throughout this article, we will reference the use of non-potable water. Please use common wisdom when determining what water source to use and for which purpose it’s intended.

When your water sources are rainwater tanks, ground water, or surface water (lakes or rivers), make sure to test it or treat it prior to consumption. Sometimes filtration is absolutely required, which would be the case for murky / stagnant water that is covered in algae.

Any water source that has been closely exposed to fecal matter should never be re-used, and must be properly disposed.

The dangers of non-potable water

The quality of non-potable water varies greatly from the source in which it comes from. Some water sources are deemed unsafe only because of their high mineral content. In those cases, you could just filter the water or boil it to make it safe for human consumption. Other water sources might contain a virus or bacteria that can cause serious illness.

A virus or bacteria in the water can become deadly, whereas a high mineral content or a pollutant found in your rain catchment system might not affect you too much in the short run. In any given situation, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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Pollutants commonly found in tap water

It’s important to get your water supply tested on occasion because most contaminants and pollutants are unseen by the naked eye. The following contaminants can enter our water supply in different ways:

Contaminants: Impurities can be found in the environment through natural and man-made chemicals. The following are some common contaminants:

  • Lead: Can be leached into the water by the corrosion of a plumbing system that contains lead. Lead is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless metal that can cause cancer, birth defects, brain damage and a myriad of other health problems.

  • Copper: Can be found in water with corroded copper pipes, or in the environment of mining or manufacturing operations. Copper can cause stomach problems, diarrhea, vomiting, kidney disease and liver damage.

  • Arsenic: Can be leached into the water due to agricultural and industrial pollution. Arsenic has been linked to cancer and many other health problems. It should also be mentioned that arsenic cannot be removed from the water by boiling it or by adding chlorine.

  • Nitrates: Found in private well water that has been improperly built as well as improper disposal of animal and human waste. Nitrate cannot be removed through boiling or chlorination.

Protozoan Parasite: A one-celled organism that can live in animals and insects but will reproduce quickly when ingested

  • Giardia and Cryptosporidium: Both of these protozoans are found in water that has been contaminated by the poop of an animal or human that is ill with the parasite. The effects can cause vomiting, fever, dehydration, and gut problems. The recovery process can take several months because your intestines take time to heal.

Bacteria: These are organisms smaller than protozoans, and are present in wild and domestic animals. Common bacteria found in water are cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and paratyphoid.

Viruses: Viruses are so small that they can easily pass through a filter. This is a huge health risk, especially for people with a weak immune system, because there is no treatment for a water-related viral infection.

Safe uses for non-potable water

For everyone who has lived through a drought, you know how crucial conserving water is. The following are great uses for water that are not otherwise suitable for drinking purposes.

  • Water your garden. An herb or vegetable garden can be watered with non potable water so long that it doesn't come into direct contact with the edible part of the plant. The water you use should not contain chemicals (like soap or detergent- not even oil) or other toxic substances.

  • Do your laundry. Hanging the clothes to dry in the sun can sanitize them even more.

  • Toilet and urinal flushing.

  • Cleaning non-food contact surfaces, such as floors.

  • Washing / rinsing ceramic dishes and metal utensils. Ceramic dishes can be washed with non-potable water (such as rain catchment water) but they must dry out completely. There must be NO residual moisture to prevent the further growth of bacteria. If you’re able to dry them in the sun, that’s even better. Bacteria and viruses cannot survive on dry surfaces when humidity levels are 10% or less.

Unsafe uses for non-potable water

If your home is equipped with a rain catchment system, you still need to filter and purify it, in order for it to be considered potable. Not all non-potable water is toxic for the body, but as a general rule, any water that has not been tested or treated is considered non-potable and should not be used for any of the following:

  • Personal hygiene:

    • Brushing your teeth. Even if you’re not swallowing the water, bacteria can still get inside your mouth and travel to other parts of your body.

    • Taking a bath or shower. Water will get into our mouth, ears, eyes, and privates while in the shower. If bacteria enters any of these entry-points in our bodies, we can become susceptible to illness.

    • Washing your hands. Our hands are consistently around our face, especially eyes and mouth. These are two huge entry-points for bacteria. It’s best advised to always wash your hands with potable water, or in extreme cases following the washing routine with alcohol wipes or hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of bacteria.

  • In and around food:

    • Washing food and food ingredients.

    • Cooking food and preparing drinks.

    • Cleaning surfaces that food may come into contact with.

    • Washing / rinsing food containers. Dishes made of plastic, wood, and other porous materials like clay, should not be washed with non-potable water because bacteria can remain in these surfaces if they don’t dry properly.

In many developing countries and large cities you will find that the tap water is not potable, but is still being used for bathing, washing dishes and personal hygiene. While the locals may have become accustomed to the bacteria present in their water supply throughout their life, as a foreigner you have a higher chance of getting sick.

The best recommendation is to use bottled water for brushing your teeth and keeping your mouth closed in the shower. When washing dishes, make sure they’re thoroughly dry (for several hours, and in the sun if possible) before using them again. Finally, after washing your hands, make sure to allow them to dry completely before touching food or touching your eyes or mouth. Some bacteria will die as the air dries them out. You may have to take extra precautions if you’re pregnant, or have small children.

How often should you test your water supply?

The CDC recommends that you test your well water supply once a year. Any surface water should be tested multiple times a year (it’s recommended every season) because it’s more susceptible to pollutants and bacteria.

How safe is your city's tap water?

The Tap Water Database is a handy tool that will show you what pollutants are presently found in your water supply, as well as the source of each of the contaminants. They will also show you how to choose an appropriate water filter to filter out all the nasty chemicals in the tap.

Just put your ZIP code and voila.

In conclusion

Water is one of the most important resources in the world. Our bodies have to be replenished with water constantly, while it also serves as a tool in all our daily activities, from food preparation to personal hygiene to indoor and outdoor use.

Some people live in a place where potable water is accessible anytime, but realistically, the majority of the world doesn’t have this luxury. Wherever we’re at, it’s a good idea to learn the proper use of potable and non-potable water so that we can become better consumers now while preparing for a water crisis if we’re ever faced with an emergency or natural disaster.

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Comments 1

  1. Hello. Thank you for mentioning the database to the known pollutants in my city’s water. That was super helpful.

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