Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Can you use a portable camping water filter to safely drink tap water after an earthquake in case your emergency water is gone? (Spoiler alert: the answer is no.)

It’s about a week after a major earthquake, and your commercial emergency water bottles, regardless of the date stamped on the side, are all used up.  There is no running water from your faucets, or there is water but your utilities company hasn’t yet managed to confirm that it is safe to drink, and the government is overwhelmed trying to bring in water supplies to a large affected area.  Your water heater and UPPER toilet tank are emptied out.  And even if you are in San Francisco, the potable water hydrants are defunct and haven’t been recertified yet.  What now?

Well, there are the long-known last resorts of using water purification tablets, boiling, diluted bleach, etc.  But there’s a new kid on the block, growing in popularity over the last several years: the personal water filter.

I may be a bit behind the curve on this one, but I’ve only recently become aware of several types of portable, lightweight, hollow fiber membrane water filters that you can use to drink water directly from potentially unsafe ponds and streams.  These filters, the best-known of which are the LifeStraw from Vestergaard and the Sawyer MINI from Sawyer, let you suck water through them directly from the questionable source and drink it.  Last month, a reader inquired as to why they weren’t on my list of emergency supplies, and I decided to investigate.

I was pretty impressed by these devices, at least regarding use in the undisturbed wilderness.  I know that putting one end of a cylinder into a pond with Cryptosporidium and Giardia (which are as bad as they sound), or MONSTER PARASITES THAT EAT YOUR BRAIN (they are probably out there somewhere), and sucking water through the cylinder and DRINKING IT might sound concerning.  However, these hollow fiber filters are quite good at keeping out the bad stuff while letting the water in, and still allowing water to flow quickly enough that you can drink it in real time.  Time Magazine gave LifeStraw their award for Best Invention of 2005.  The LifeStraw and Sawyer filters use FDA-compliant materials and yield water that the companies report to meet US EPA drinking water standards and World Health Organization “highly protective” category standard of safe water.  Hang on, though, we’ll look more closely at these health claims in a minute.

Hollow fiber filter (from Sawyer website)
First, let’s look at how they work (humor me, I'm a scientist).  Inside the cylinders are bundles of tiny hollow fibers with tinier holes in their walls.  The fibers are bent so that both ends are densely packed toward the drinking end of the cylinder, and the middles are facing the water source so that water has to get from outside the fiber to inside the fiber before it can come out the drinking end (or perhaps the other direction, descriptions vary).  The size of the tiny pores determines what gets filtered out.  Because the fibers are so small and there are so many of them, there’s a huge surface area for filtration, and the water flows through the filter fast enough to have a satisfying drink.

They do have a finite lifespan of use, however, with LifeStraw filtering up to 264 gallons (that’s 1000 liters, so it really is a round number) and Sawyer Mini filtering up to 100,000 gallons.  They also store indefinitely.  For a while, LifeStraws were given a storage life of 5 years but this was later revised to indefinite.

Sawyer MINI
They also come in different forms that have varying advantages depending on what you want to do.  The basic LifeStraw is about 9 inches long and you can see pictures on the web of people lying down to get their faces within 9 inches of the surface of a pond; perhaps not ideal on a muddy shore or one infested with scorpions, but probably not a problem if you have scooped up a bottle of water from a suspicious pond and are drinking that through the filter.  The Sawyer MINI is even shorter, 5 inches including its tips, so it fits better into backpacks, and it has a real straw that attaches to the end that effectively extends it to 12 inches.  They both have the ability to be attached to standard water bottles and you can get them with their own bottles and bags.  Here’s where Sawyer has a nice feature; while they both have bottles that incorporate the basic filter cartridges, these take up space, and the Sawyer has a bag that screws onto the bottom of the cartridge but can be rolled up when empty, taking up practically no space.

Most importantly, what about health?

LifeStraw filters through 0.2 micron pores.  (A micron, or micrometer, is one one-thousandth of a millimeter; the typical bacteria living inside your gut is about 2 microns long and about 0.5 micron wide.)  LifeStraw claims that this yields good drinking water, EPA compliant, etc.  Sawyer filters to 0.1 microns or 0.02 microns depending on the version.  Sawyer states that the 0.1 micron filter takes out 99.99999% of bacteria and 99.9999% of protozoans (like Cryptosporidium and Giardia), but does not remove viruses due to their smaller size.  Sawyer thus considers this filter safe for travel around the North American wilderness but not for third world countries, in which viruses like hepatitis A in the water supply is a big concern.  (Human-infecting viruses do not persist in the wild; their presence in the water is typically from contamination with human waste/sewage.)  They claim that the 0.02 micron filter takes out 99.9997% of viruses and that this exceeds EPA recommendations, although they point out that the 0.02 micron filter takes a longer time to pass water, and suggest that you use the 0.02 micron filter if you will go to a third world country.  Unfortunately, the 0.02 micron Sawyer filter system does not appear to be available in the small portable size, and is much more expensive.

(But wait, LifeStraw makes a big deal about its filters with their 0.2 micron filtration being used in developing countries; they have been partnering with various charities to give free filters to people in various African countries, Haiti after the recent typhoon, etc.; so this contradiction is confusing.)

It’s worth noting that these pore size figures are not the average pore size, with some pores being smaller and some larger; they are absolute pore sizes, so no pore should be larger than the number given.  One more important point is that these are physical filters; they don’t include resins or activated charcoal so they don’t take out chemicals or bad tastes like commercial kitchen water filters do (for example, Brita).  So if you use these to drink from germ-laden disgusting water, you’ll ingest germ-free disgusting water.  And remember, no filter can let you drink saltwater.

Ok, so what about health AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE?

Still, what concerns us most in this article is: what about health in a modern city after an earthquake?  After all, it’s one thing to wander around in the Rocky Mountains drinking from beautiful streams, but what will our water supply look like after an earthquake has potentially compromised our water pipes?  Well, I checked with emergency planners and water quality engineers at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and I have disappointing (not to mention rather disturbing) news from Water Quality Division Engineering Manager Manouchehr Boozarpour.  Normally, our potable water pipes carry potable water, and our sewage pipes contain sewage, and never the twain shall meet... unless both kinds of pipes crack during an earthquake, in which case cross contamination is likely.  Yep, THAT’s what they mean when they say you need to purify tap water after an earthquake, and because the sewage potentially introduces viruses, which are not removed by the 0.2 and 0.1 micron portable filters, the water from your post-quake tap is likely to be more dangerous than the water in the mountain pond.

So, unfortunately, a LifeStraw or Sawyer individual filter tube does NOT offer sufficient protection to drink potentially contaminated tap water after an earthquake in a city.  The options that I can see to decontaminate suspicious tap water are to either pack one of these small filter tubes in your portable emergency kit but to also have water purification tablets packed to treat the water before you suck it through the filter, or to purchase one of the larger systems that would be intended for home use in the aftermath of a major quake but would be more difficult to take with you if you had to leave.   These kits consist either of Sawyer’s 0.02 micron filter that theoretically removes the viruses, but is slow and requires a large pumping mechanism; or a system that includes both a filter and a chemical water treatment step designed to inactive viruses like the Sweetwater purification system.  Note that chemical purification alone does not guarantee killing of Cryptosporidium and Giardia.  Boiling is great, but you can’t assume you’ll have the necessary heating source to do it, and flame is never a good idea around potential gas leaks.

Purification systems that remove or inactivate viruses
But guess what, even making your water non-infectious doesn’t mean it is safe.  If the ground in your local area, or wherever the pipes are buried, has high levels of industrial pollutant chemicals, then these can also get into the water supply after an earthquake.  I would not count on Brita water filters to solve that potential problem, and boiling that water won't make a difference.  Many regions do not have this problem, but some do.  For this reason, I think the best advice I can give here is to be prepared and able to remove/inactivate microorganisms including viruses, BUT to drink only your stored emergency water until you have heard from your own local authorities about what problems are affecting your own local water supply.  It follows, then, that none of these purification systems get you off the hook from having to store emergency water.

The Centers for Disease Control has a very useful and detailed document about emergency water purification that is worth reading.  Just don’t be surprised to see their comment that you should observe printed expiration dates on commercially bottled water, which contradicts the FDA’s advice about which I wrote last year that you can ignore those dates.  Remember that the FDA is the agency charged with regulating safety of bottled water, so I am comfortable giving priority to their advice on the matter.

Bottom line: I still advise keeping sufficient emergency water supplies handy so that you don’t have to purify tap water in the first place.  Still, we can’t know that a more extended water shortage won’t develop (remember, the Red Cross is recommending TWO weeks of emergency supplies now), so having the ability to remove microorganisms including viruses may still come in handy if the local authorities tell you that you can drink the water if it's been boiled.

I had never realized how much we take our water faucet for granted!

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Should I stay or should I go?...the inevitable dilemma about staying in the building during an earthquake

This month, we are taking a break from the actual preparedness issues and will instead delve further into this annoyingly counter-intuitive recommendation to not run out of buildings during earthquakes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An amazing story from the past, AND more about hanging pictures that won’t come crashing down (the wired and non-wired varieties)

Even though I don’t plan on posting very often so  I don’t add to the e-mail overload of people who subscribe, it just makes sense to post something on April 18th, the anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  There are two items on today’s plate: first a link to a then-young woman’s amazing description of what she experienced in the 1906 quake, and then I wanted to discuss a bit more about hanging pictures on the walls safely.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Important information about the recurring "Triangle of Life" e-mail spam

Thoughts about the much-publicized North American earthquake prediction for late March 2011

"Why the heck do you live in that place with earthquakes??"

A blog is launched; opening thoughts

This is my first experience authoring a blog, and there will probably be a few technical bumps along the way.  Earthquake safety is an important topic in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, and I hope that the information and occasional thoughts and tips here will be of interest to people who are trying to maximize their safety in our occasionally moving region.

It's important to remember that even though we live in a place that is subject to earthquakes, which are occasionally pretty big, most of the risks associated with California earthquakes can be minimized by taking some precautions ahead of time.  Just like one knows not to go jogging alone in the middle of the night in a dark park in a dangerous part of town, one should know what to do and not to do in regions subject to natural disasters.

I'm kick-starting this blog with a few entries in a row, first introductory and then a few entries that have already been on my website.  After that, I'll post occasionally; perhaps even relatively rarely so that I don't add to people's e-mail burdens.  I've got no idea about how many people will be signing on to this, but welcome to those that do!

-Matt Springer

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