Distillation ensures safe drinking water during an emergency

March 4, 2013

Disasters happen. From Hurricane Sandy, Irene, Andrew and Katrina to the devastating Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, disasters strike without warning and the aftermath …

Disasters happen. From Hurricane Sandy, Irene, Andrew and Katrina to the devastating Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, disasters strike without warning and the aftermath can be as devastating as the event. During an emergency, water supplies are often contaminated and disrupted, sometimes for an extended period of time. Without a safe supply of drinking water, healthy people who could otherwise provide for their family can become severely ill within days. At greater risk are children and infants.

People take safe drinking water for granted. They don’t think about their water supplies, nor do they think about the vulnerability of our water infrastructure during a disaster. They don’t think about the prolonged danger after a disaster or the panic that can grip a large population of people when they are deprived of safe drinking water.

There is no guarantee that a crisis will be short-term or isolated to a small, localized community, nor is there a guarantee that the government will be able to promptly respond to help people. While government agencies and organizations have plans for large scale response to such threats, it’s prudent for families to be prepared with a long-term water purification solution so they aren’t dependent upon government response.

Preparing for a disaster

A little bit of preparation before an event happens can mean the difference between a sick, panicking family and a healthy family who is able to proactively help their neighbors. It’s the responsibility of water treatment professionals to know the dangers of a disaster situation and to recommend a solution that will allow families to remain water independent for as long as is needed. By recommending emergency solutions to customers, the water treatment dealer could save people’s lives, while creating an additional revenue source and a grateful, more educated customer.

Dealers should be fully prepared to educate their customers. The first step is to research the potential dangers. A massive earthquake in California, for example, could leave millions of people without a safe supply of drinking water, while also devastating roads and piping infrastructure. As the 2011 Christchurch (New Zealand) earthquake demonstrates, an earthquake can not only destroy buildings and roads above ground, but the underground water pipes and sewer lines can be shattered as well. And, countless aftershocks (more than 10,000 over nine months) can wreak havoc on efforts at rebuilding this infrastructure.

After Hurricane Andrew, thousands of homes were without a safe supply of water for more than a month. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 shut down water treatment plants and caused tap water to be contaminated with raw sewage. In some places this problem lasted for weeks. After Hurricane Katrina, the water was highly contaminated and the municipal drinking water system was disrupted for months.

In addition to natural disasters, we cannot ignore man-made threats. The White House has repeatedly warned of the threat of terrorism against our water supplies and the need for individuals to prepare themselves. Today, even more significant threats are possible from cyber attacks that have the potential to seriously disable our electric infrastructure for long periods of time.

How disasters affect water supply

The second step is to understand how disasters could affect the water supply. During a disaster, the infrastructure that protects us from harmful contaminants can be compromised. Power outages can cause water treatment systems to shut down, sending contaminated water through the pipes. Flooding can cause human and animal waste to contaminate water supplies with dangerous bacteria, parasites and viruses.

The Japanese Fukushima Nuclear Disaster demonstrates that water can also become severely contaminated with other types of contaminants, including salt water, toxic metals, chemicals or even radioactive contaminants. Refineries can be severely damaged. Pipelines can rupture. Chemical tanker trucks can crash. Railroad tanker cars can derail. Storage tanks of pesticides or gasoline or other chemicals can fail. Hurricanes and tsunamis can cause surges of salt water.

Biological contamination is the most serious type of water emergency and, if present, it could quickly cause severe illness or even death. Toxic metals, petrochemicals and radioactive contaminants can be present in very high amounts and can pose serious health risks. In an emergency, no one knows what contaminants are in the water. A good water treatment solution should offer a broad protection against the full range of possible contaminants.

Understanding treatment methods

The third step is to understand how these severe conditions could affect standard treatment methods and other proper methods for treating water during an emergency. Every family should have at least a week’s supply of bottled water on hand. Bottled water, however, takes up a lot of space and is difficult to move. A supply of bottled water can quickly be exhausted because of the demand from friends, family and neighbors who did not prepare. Bottled water is first to fly off store shelves, and damaged infrastructures can make replenishment difficult.

In addition to a supply of bottled water, families should have a means to produce their own supply of pure, safe water for an extended period of time. But, some standard water treatment options may not be appropriate for a disaster situation. Standard reverse osmosis systems and standard filters, as examples, are really not up to the job for treating heavy contaminant loads, especially if the water contains dangerous levels of biological contaminants. These filters may be acceptable for polishing the water in normal operating conditions, but could cause a false sense of security on dangerously contaminated water.

Standard filters and reverse osmosis systems can become overloaded and fail. A failure in such a filter will allow raw water to contaminate the filtered water, and the user would not necessarily know that such a breach has happened.

There are filters on the market that are specifically designed for emergency situations. These systems typically use ceramic filters, which based on manufacturer’s claims, are more reliable against biological contaminants. These filters, however, still rely on a barrier, and if this barrier fails for whatever reason, dangerous contaminants would pass through to the filtered water. For this reason, the water produced by these systems should also be boiled or chemically disinfected if possible.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) have published advisories that recommend three methods for individuals to treat water during an emergency. These methods include:

1. Boiling the water

2. Chemical disinfection

3. Distillation.


Of the three methods recommended by FEMA, the Red Cross and AWWA, distillation is the only process that: Produces high-purity water; kills and removes biological contaminants; is effective at removing toxic metals, organic chemicals and radioactive contaminants; and is an effective method for desalinating ocean water for an indefinite period.

The process of distillation is recommended to be the most effective way to treat contaminated water during an emergency. Distillation uses the phase-change process of evaporation, condensation and precipitation.

First, raw water is boiled, which kills biological contaminants, releases trapped gases and contaminants that have a lower boiling point than water (which then can be vented away) and causes the water to evaporate as steam. Contaminants that have a higher boiling point than water stay behind in the boiling water (which is later drained away), while the high-purity steam rises. A good distiller has a baffle, which separates out splashes of contaminated water from the pure steam. The steam is then separated and then cooled back into liquid, distilled water.

A well-designed water distiller will produce consistent high-purity distilled water for the life of the machine, without the need for filters. While most distillers require electricity, there are also non-electric water distillers on the market that can use a variety of heat sources, such as a propane stove, a backyard grill or even a simple wood burning fire. These non-electric water distillers allow people to provide their family with an ongoing source of high-purity water for an indefinite time from their swimming pool, seawater or other non-conventional water sources.

Water treatment dealers should help their customers be prepared for an emergency. There are a lot of people around the country who are preparing for that scenario and they need solid advice from water professionals who have carefully researched the issue.

Glenn Meder is the president of GAEMRIC Inc. and is the inventor of the Survival Still, emergency drinking water system. Glenn has worked in the water distillation industry for over 20 years and has done numerous radio shows and has written many articles about the process of distillation. He has extensive international experience. www.SurvivalStill.com.

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