Photo: Luis-Tosta / Unsplash
Water, water everywhere … but is any of it safe to drink? It’s the question that has haunted human beings for millennia. From a muddy watering hole on the Serengeti, to modern municipal water supplies contaminated with cryptosporidium, we all know that bad water can bring us to our knees.
At cabins across the U.S., water is drawn from a plethora of sources: drilled or dug wells, municipal drinking water supplies or even surface waters like lakes or rivers. The list of possible contaminants can be long and varied, depending on the water source and the plumbing that routes it to your sink. Luckily, water awareness and treatment has advanced steadily over the years, and today many of the contaminants can be prevented or removed before they become a problem.
The following is a list of common water quality problems and the associated “cures.” It’s worth noting that due to the wide range of water quality and chemistry across the country, plumbing methods and materials, and the sensitivity of the water-drinking population in your cabin (i.e., young children, or people with compromised immune systems) there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensure safe drinking water.
The Suspects: Dissolved MetalsLead and copper are the two heavy metals most commonly found in drinking water. Both can have toxic effects in high concentrations (copper toxicity is most prevalent in people with Wilson’s Disease, a copper metabolic disorder), and the source is usually the plumbing system, not the water supply. However, areas with history of mining or other industrial uses occasionally have elevated metals in the groundwater supply.
Copper pipe is very common in cabin and home plumbing systems, and lead solder, lead pipe and even brass fixtures can contribute to elevated lead levels. The main factor behind the concentration of these metals in your drinking water depends largely on water chemistry; water that is slightly corrosive enhances the leaching of these metals from the pipe or solder into your water supply.
Ironically, water softeners and reverse-osmosis (RO) systems can actually increase the leachability of these metals, since they remove the natural buffering capacity of the water. So, if you install an RO system for metals removal, it makes sense to use non-metallic plumbing after the RO treatment. And those clear, low-pH lakes we all love to look at? Their water chemistry also can contribute to metal leaching.
Copper and lead pipes are relatively easy to identify. Solder is a bit tougher to pin down; lead-based solder has been outlawed for potable water systems since 1984, but some plumbers still used up their old reserves on projects performed after that date. How can you tell the difference? The replacement, a tin-antimony blend, will be brighter in surface appearance than lead. Check out the pipe joints on your cabin; if you can scratch through a dull finish on the solder to reveal a bright, silvery metal, it’s likely you have lead-based solder. However, the only surefire way to tell how much lead or copper is actually in your water is to have it tested by a certified laboratory.
Some people with elevated copper or lead levels elect to replace their metal plumbing with CPVC or Pex® (cross-linked polyethylene) tubing. This usually isn’t necessary; almost all copper and lead can be flushed from your plumbing by running the sink for a few minutes before drinking. When the water turns cold, it means the water in the pipes has been flushed out and the water flowing through your faucet should have much lower levels of the metal(s).
Occasionally, water supplies from municipal sources have lead-contaminated service lines, which obviously cannot be replaced or properly flushed by the cabin owner. And for those areas with elevated metals in the aquifer, flushing the lines won’t accomplish a thing. Municipal sources are required to publish (and make available to interested parties) annual drinking water reports, the Consumer Confidence Reports for Drinking Water. If your municipal supply indicates your water supply has elevated metals, a more robust water treatment system such as a reverse-osmosis system might be warranted.
Photo: Silvan Schuppisser / Unsplash
The Suspects: E.coli/NitratesIn addition to copper and lead, bacterial contamination (Escherichia coli) and their associated waste byproducts (nitrates) are two of the most common water contaminants in rural water supplies.
Improperly maintained or installed septic systems, run-off from animal wastes (think of Fido or of those lovely geese on your cabin lawn) and decaying vegetation are common sources of bacterial contamination. Excessive fertilizers can also be an independent source of nitrate loading. Bacterial contamination effects are usually limited to gastrointestinal distress, whereas excessive nitrate exposure is a cause of methemoglobinemia – commonly called “blue-baby syndrome.” Methemoglobinemia primarily affects pregnant women and infants under 6 months of age.
Again, testing is required to confirm the presence of these contaminants. Some off-the-shelf kits are available; however, laboratory testing is relatively inexpensive, more accurate and can differentiate between fecal- and non-fecal based bacteria, an important consideration when determining the source of the contaminants.
Most E.coli and nitrate contamination problems are caused from an improperly sealed well, and older dug wells are more prone to surface contamination than modern drilled wells. To prevent contaminated run-off from reaching your aquifer, it is imperative that the top of the well casing is elevated and properly capped. Any old wells on the property can also contribute to aquifer pollution; if you’re unsure about the integrity of your existing or legacy well, contact your local or state health agency or a well-drilling company for an investigation (and sealing, if necessary).
THE SUSPECT: Cryptosporidium
“Crypto.” The very word has sinister connotations, and for good reason. Cryptosporidium outbreaks number in the tens of thousands in some years, and the health effects range from minor stomach upsets to death in young children and immunocompromised people. While many outbreaks are limited to fecal exposure in communal swimming pools, municipal water supplies can also contain crypto. And with cysts that are largely immune to chlorine, crypto is tough to kill with conventional disinfection methods.
Again, if you draw water from a municipal supply, ask for the annual report. Some water suppliers will have online or laboratory crypto-monitoring programs, with results available for their customers.
The crypto cysts are about 5 to 6 microns in size, just small enough to slip through a conventional 5-micron whole-house water-filter system. By installing or upgrading your whole-house filter cartridge to a 1-micron pore size (look for a “cyst removal” labeling) you can remove 99 percent or more of any crypto present in your water supply. Alternately, ultraviolet (UV) sterilization and RO-membrane systems also work extremely well in deactivating and removing crypto cysts, respectively. Iodine tablets, a common portable water treatment method, can also destroy crypto with sufficient contact time.
Photo: Greg Rosenke / Unsplash
THE SUSPECT: Giardia, a.k.a. Beaver FeverDespite the common misconception that giardia is largely a backwoods problem, some of the estimated 2 million cases in the U.S. each year stem from communal swimming pools, surface water ingestion on heavy-use lakes and small water treatment systems. The health effects from this nasty little protozoan can most closely be described as an F-5 tornado, one that can twist through your guts for weeks and cause tremendous flatulence and dangerous weight loss.
There are laboratory techniques for identifying giardia, and the annual report may have information as well, but unfortunately you usually just know it when you get it.
Like crypto, giardia is largely resistant to traditional chlorination disinfection. Slightly larger than crypto spores, water with possible giardia contamination can be treated by 1-micron-cartridge filtration, iodine tablets, RO filtration, or UV-sterilization.
A Final Note
For the vast majority of cabin owners, water quality is much higher than it is for households in developing countries. But due to the remote locations in which many cabins are located, and some of the associated antiquated plumbing and treatment methods that deliver water to our weekend retreats, microbial contamination can’t be dismissed out of hand. Do some research, evaluate your risks, and then determine what, if any, treatment you might need for your family’s and guests’ safety. And if you’re ever in doubt, don’t forget the oldest, most surefire method for biological decontamination: A few minutes above 212 degrees F in the old boiling pot will take care of just about any microscopic critter in the book.
A writer and aquatic scientist, Kurt Anderson has made the important discovery that the slightly flat taste of boiled water can be offset by a small portion of single-malt Scotch.