Water Sanitation And Staying Healthy While Traveling

I pretty much grew up in a lab. Together, my parents owned a water testing company and had the important job of testing drinking water, shellfish, water features, seawater, and quite a lot of other things. My experience watching them conduct experiments, and eventually learning to do some of the tests myself gave me a strong appreciation for the importance of safe water--something that many Americans and Europeans definitely take for granted.

As an adult, when I traveled to China to study flowers and cultures for my PhD, I definitely overlooked the safety and quality of water. As an invincible early 20-something when I arrived in Kunming, a modern city with a population of 6.6 million, I stupidly drank the water straight from the tap, with no treatment.

This foolishness on my part landed me with a yucky bacterial infection (easily remedied with my fav. travel antibiotic) and eventually, a parasite that took three years to get rid of. Had I done sufficient research beforehand, I would have known that even Chinese don't drink the tap water without extensive boiling and don't use it to brush their teeth. In this case, water pre-treatment would have saved me a lot of unpleasant doctor visits.


Water Sanitation: The Facts

I've actually got my Dad, Bill Georgian, dropping by today, who has owned his own water quality testing business since 1981. As he's been working towards water sanitation and safety in Connecticut since way before I was born, I've asked him to share water safety information pertaining specifically to travelers.

"Safe, potable drinking water is essential for maintaining good health.  When considering potable water there are several categories that need to be considered:

  • Microorganisms (bacteria, parasites, protozoans, and viruses) including total coliform, fecal coliform, cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia. e.g., bad microorganisms coming from human and animal fecal wastes [poop].
  • Inorganic chemicals including heavy metals (i.e., mercury; arsenic; cadmium; etc) and nitrates. These come from agricultural, industrial, and natural sources in the form of discharges or runoff.
  • Organic chemicals including pesticides, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and petroleum hydrocarbons (fuels). These also come from industrial and agricultural discharges and runoff.

The effect of drinking water contaminated with microorganisms typically have a relatively quick effect (e.g., upset stomach, cramps, diarrhea). Unlike microorganism, the inorganics and organics, unless at very high concentrations which can result in acute symptoms, have a much more sinister effect (go watch Erin Bockovich for a refresher). Both classes tend to be cumulative in different body systems and can have long term detrimental effects.  Filtration systems using carbon and resins are effective media to effectively remove these."

To know if the water is safe to drink while traveling, Google "Is the water in "city or country" safe to drink (potable)?" Be sure that you are reading articles from a reputable source like the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the country's national water or environmental agency's webpage, not resources like TripAdvisor or other travel forums.


What To Do When The Water Is Unsafe

Here are my practices for preventing health problems related to microorganisms for myself and my family healthy in a country or city with unsafe drinking water:

1) Don't drink the water without treatment. In some cases, boiling the tap water for a sufficiently long time can kill bacteria in the water. My Dad says, "a good rolling boil for 20 minutes (longer at higher altitudes) will typically kill most organisms and render the water safe with regard to microorganisms"--but this does not have an effect on organics or inorganics. In other cases, you might choose to purchase bottled water and use that to drink, brush teeth, and wash produce. If purchasing bottled water is cost prohibitive, has you concerned for plastic waste in the environment, or not feasible for the long-term, then you can opt to purchase a water treatment device (see below for suggestions).

2) Avoid fresh fruit that can't be peeled (or washed with treated water) and uncooked vegetables including salads.  If you want to eat fresh fruit and can't wash it with treated water, choose fruit that can be eaten peeled like citrus, apples, pears, melons, mangoes, and dragon fruit. Avoid raw vegetables unless you are sure that they're washed first with clean water. Some restaurants that cater to foreigners, like Salvadors in Kunming, use a filtered water system so that everything the cook is safe to consume.

3) My Chinese roommates always had a particular way of brushing their teeth, which after thinking about it more, is genius when you can't drink the water. They always poured treated tap water into a clean cup, then dipped their toothbrushes into the cup to moisten them before brushing. Following brushing, they used the remainder of the water in the cup to rinse their brushes and their mouths. So, brush your teeth* like my Chinese roommates.

4) Avoid all drinks made with ice cubes or fresh squeezed juices that might include water added in.

5) Be prepared by bringing some Imodium* (or a similar OTC intestinal medicine), Tums*, and if you are going to be way off the grid as I was during field work, visit a travel doctor and request a prescription for travel antibiotics.


Suggested Gear And Steps To Treat Non-potable Water

"One more thing that is important is that if completely unsure whether the water is contaminated with microbes, inorganics, and/or organics, using a chlorination device first to kill the microorganisms (chlorine is very effective at this--even the cells in our bodies produce chlorine to kill invading organisms) followed by carbon and resin filtration that will subsequently remove the chlorine and also the organics (I haven't seen a good reference for the heavy metal portable water treatment unit) will assure a safe, potable water supply."

So to simplify, first, the water should be treated for microbes via boiling or using a chlorination device, then treated for inorganic and organic chemicals, which can build up in your system causing adverse health conditions (remember the story of Erin Brokovich or how about Flint, MI?).

1) My Dad's suggestion is an H2gO purifier (the one he likes is linked). He prefers the H2gO purifier as it uses regular table salt and electrolysis to generate chlorine that can be used to disinfect water for bacteria, protozoa, and viruses (the microorganisms that will make you sick). I had an H2gO purifier in the field, but I found the amount of water and size of container needed prohibitive for carrying in rural China so I actually never used it. If I was staying put in the city, using an H2gO purifier like the one linked above actually would have worked really well.

2) Another option is the LifeStraw personal filter*, as it seems easy to carry for anything from backpacking in the Himalayas to a city break in Marrakesh. It filters harmful microorganisms out of the water, though it doesn't address organic or inorganic chemicals.

3) Another option that is particularly good if you have concerns about organic chemicals (like pesticides) in drinking water is the LifeStraw Steel Personal Water Filter.* This filter removes microorganisms and reduces pesticides and heavy metals contaminating water; however, heavy metals could still be a concern. Nonetheless, this is currently on my travel purchases wish-list to keep the water safe for my family when traveling.


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**Disclaimer: I'm not a medical doctor nor am I a water chemist, so please keep in mind that these are just my own personal suggestions and practices for staying healthy when I'm in destinations with non-potable water. Though my dad is an experienced water chemist, he is also not a medical doctor and his experiences and advice should be confirmed by your travel doctor. Before any trip abroad, contact your doctor to discuss health risks and prevention. In Search Of does not take responsibility for water sanitation and your health, this blog is simply meant to share personal experiences with water sanitation in various destinations around the world. Refer to the disclaimer page for further details**