Understanding water safety during an emergency: Part one

Oct. 1, 2013

The goal should be to empower individuals with the proper understanding of what to do after a disaster strikes so they are able to provide their family with safe drinking water during an emergency for as long as it is needed.

It’s a funny quirk of human nature that we can watch the terrible devastation of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster and then quickly go back to our daily routines. We don’t want to ponder such destruction touching our own lives. But disasters happen, and by definition, they come when we least expect it. While it may not be pleasant to contemplate, it is prudent to give some thought as to what can happen, because even a little bit of preparation can make a huge difference.

It goes beyond basic prudence, however, for the water treatment industry. After the initial destruction of an earthquake, hurricane or other disaster, water can quickly become dangerously contaminated and can cause illness, pain, suffering and panic. There is no guarantee that a crisis will be short term or isolated to a small, localized area; nor is there a guarantee that the government will be able to promptly respond to help. And, damaged infrastructure has the real potential to disrupt emergency response efforts.

The water treatment industry, and especially local water treatment professionals, should be well educated on how to treat water during an emergency and should take a leadership role in preparing for a disaster.

Imagine this scenario: You are in an area that was struck by a massive earthquake. Roads are damaged so you can’t get out and rescue services can’t get in. Store shelves are stripped clean. Water isn’t flowing from pipes and toilets aren’t flushing so waste is backing up. Power is out and communications are down so you don’t know what’s going on. You’re scared and feeling very alone, and yet you have to stay calm for your family. You’ve never thought about water before because it’s always been available. You quickly empty the drinks in your fridge, and for the first time in your life you wonder where you are going to get your water. Finding drinking water becomes your primary focus. You notice that other people are starting to panic because they don’t have safe water to drink. Then the worst happens, you drink the wrong water and get sick.

A stomach bug during normal situations is merely an uncomfortable inconvenience. You simply drink plenty of water and sleep it off and after a day or two you’re better. But what happens when you aren’t able to drink water and replace the water that you are losing? If you can’t immediately rehydrate, your health can quickly deteriorate. Your scary predicament can turn into a very dangerous situation.

If you are prepared, however, and you know the proper way to provide your family with a supply of safe drinking water during an emergency, you will be better able to stay calm and protect your family until help arrives. In addition, you would be able to teach your neighbors how to ensure a safe supply of drinking water.

It is essential that water treatment professionals take the lead in helping people and communities become aware of the importance of being prepared for a water emergency. Our goal should be to empower individuals with the proper understanding of what to do after a disaster strikes so they are able to provide their family with safe drinking water during an emergency for as long as it is needed. People need to be able to be self sufficient so they can keep their family healthy and safe, and they can extend help to others in the community.

Here’s the starting point for water treatment professionals:

  1. Understand the risks.
  2. Reset your assumptions.
  3. Know the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) & Red Cross recommendations for treating water during an emergency situation.
  4. Understand the science behind the FEMA & Red Cross recommendations.
  5. Know what to recommend, and just as importantly, what not to recommend.
  6. Understand the tools that are available to you.
  7. Educate your clients. Take a leadership role.

Understanding the risks

Do you understand the risks? It’s all too easy to dismiss the possibility of a disaster striking where you live. It’s easy to procrastinate. If, however, you accept that the water industry has a responsibility to educate people, then we have to start by educating ourselves.

The greater Los Angeles metro area is home to over 18 million people, many of whom could be at risk if a major event such as an earthquake and tsunami were to occur. A major earthquake would likely collapse highway overpasses making the transportation of emergency supplies difficult or even impossible. But below the surface, major ruptures to the underground piping infrastructure could occur disrupting service altogether or causing sewage to contaminate drinking water. In a water emergency, it’s the biological contaminants that are the biggest short-term concern for people. Waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera can strike quickly and be deadly in some instances.

A month before the well publicized Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2010, Christchurch, New Zealand, suffered a major earthquake, which destroyed the downtown area and some suburbs and killed over 180 people. This earthquake destroyed the underground infrastructure and liquefaction of the soil occurred. There was considerable contamination from broken sewage lines making many surface streets impassable. Subsequently there have been over 10,000 aftershocks, some of which are capable of doing further damage.

Recently a commission established by legislators in Oregon issued a report indicating studies have shown that the coast of Oregon is overdue for a major earthquake. Learning the lesson from Japan, recognizing the benefits of advanced planning and noting that Oregonians were less prepared than the Japanese, Oregon has been urging consumers to have a disaster plan in place.

There are a number of other types of scenarios that could affect people in the U.S., from flooding, hurricanes, terrorism, cyber-attacks or even electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attacks. Anything that can cause a blackout, flooding or damage to our infrastructure could affect water supplies.

Reset your assumptions

Water treatment during an emergency situation is not the same as standard day-to-day water treatment. Your literature, sales presentations, product certifications and indeed everything that you tell people about water treatment are based on the assumption that you are starting with safe, potable water. In other words, your core assumptions about water treatment may go out the window in an emergency situation.

In an emergency, the water coming from the tap could be dangerously contaminated. Many products that work well in normal, day-to-day situations are not adequate for water in an emergency, and could in fact provide a false sense of security, while letting dangerous contaminants through, or even worse, they could actually magnify the problem.

Other assumptions are that water will be flowing, which it may not, or that there will be line pressure, which is required for many water treatment systems. People may have to find their own sources of water, which may be contaminated.

This ends part one of this two-part article. Click here for part two.

Glenn Meder is the president of GAEMRIC Inc. and is the inventor of the Survival Still, emergency drinking water system (www.SurvivalStill.com). Glenn has worked in the water distillation industry for over 20 years and has written an e-book called "Understanding FEMA & Red Cross Recommendations for Treating Water In an Emergency," which can be downloaded for free at www.WaterInAnEmergency.com.

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