Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Everyone has heard by now that there is a catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm not an oil expert, so I won't discuss this much here. There is a lot of information already in the media. I am quite familiar with drinking water issues, however, and over the weekend we received news of another catastrophic leak, this one affecting the Boston Metropolitan area. Several million people there are now under a "boil water" order because a section of steel pipe bringing water from its main surface supplies tens of miles to the west of Boston and surrounding communities blew out and the main water supply had to be shut down. The Reveres have family in the area so we were concerned (for the record, our water is not involved). Tthe whole story is a cautionary tale.

Provision of piped water to our cities that is safe to drink is one of the great public health triumphs of public health in the 20th century (filtration began in the late 19th century and disinfection with chlorine in the first decade of the 20th). In the 19th century, piped water was originally needed to fight fires but was also used for drinking. When connected up to toilets ("water closets") that in turn produced the need for domestic sewerage. It's a complicated world. When you do one thing it produces new problems that make you do another. And while provision of safe water is a great boon, the same system that distributes a healthful substance can also deliver harmful ones. Which brings us back to the plight of some 2 million plus people in the Boston area:

The crisis began around 10 a.m. [Saturday,May 1] when the pipe sprang a leak, which worsened throughout the afternoon and eventually cut off Greater Boston from the Quabbin Reservoir, where most of its water supply is stored.

The MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] said it could continue supplying water by activating a backup system that began drawing water last night from the Sudbury Reservoir, and can also tap into the Weston and Spot Pond reservoirs if necessary. The backup water, which one official compared with “untreated pond water,’’ can be used for bathing and flushing toilets, but not for drinking or cooking.

Authorities said they were attempting to set up mobile units to chlorinate the backup water supply, but they cautioned that even so, the water from the backup system would not meet federal drinking water standards.

“This is everyone’s worst nightmare in the water industry,’’ said Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. (Beth Daley, Michael Levenson, and Martin Finucane, Boston.com [Boston Globe])

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. The back-up supply is enough for any purpose -- flushing toilets, showering, bathing -- but if you want to drink it, cook with it or wash your salad with it, people are being advised to boil it first, letting it reach a roiling boil for at least a minute and then letting it cool naturally. Media are reporting that local stores are sold out of bottled water already.

What would happen if you drank the water? Probably nothing. The source supply is relatively clean, but now it's not being disinfected, so it is possible it could pick up enteric pathogens in sufficient quantity somewhere along the way to give someone a gastrointestinal illness. Unlikely, but possible. For most people this might produce some queasiness or cramps or even nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. The real concern is not this minor risk of discomfort or inconvenience but the more serious consequences for those with compromised immune systems, chronic illness or infants who are more vulnerable to dehydration or opportunistic infection. So the "boil water order" is from an abundance of caution, quite prudent when millions of people are being exposed.

Latest word reaching us from the scene is that now that the main supply has been shut off, the source of the rupture has been found and is not as serious as feared because it seems to have occurred at a joint where two pipes are coupled. This means the joint can be repaired with a new collar and welding rather than ordering and installing a custom made pipe, but to be sure they will have to pressure test it in case there is damage elsewhere in the 150 feet of conduit not easily visible. People will be boiling water at least for days. For their sake I hope it's not weeks, which is possible, although less likely if it's a failed coupling.

How can such a critical system be so vulnerable to failure? It's a typical infrastructure problem. Boston is in the process of building a full fledged back-up system but it won't be completed for 3 or 4 more years. The failed pipe is only 7 years old, so the chance of this kind of catastrophic failure didn't seem likely. If it had happened 6 years from now, there would have been no need for a boil water order. But it happened, now. The worst case scenario did occur.

Everybody complains about taxes but the folks around Boston are now incurring costs much greater than any tax or water rate increase. Restaurants and businesses were closed as a result of this and all that bottled water is enormously more expensive than tap water (by a factor of about a thousand; it's more expensive than gasoline on a volume basis), not to mention the energy costs of boiling more water.

You not only get what you pay for, but you often pay for what you don't get.

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I don't quite see where the "catastrophe" is here. Having grown up in Mexico City, the tap water was potable but not drinkable, and boiling water was just something you did. We had a big pot and when that boiled and cooled the water was transferred to 3-4 large pitchers as they became used up. When the big pot was empty, we would boil more, typically every 2-3 days for an 8 person household. The tap water was used for washing and even for brushing our teeth or washing produce (lettuce had to be disinfected, but we seldom ate it). It seems like Boston has an adequate backup, and if they need to boil water for a week...well it's hardly a worse case scenario, even in the developed world. I don't see why restaurants have to close.

Also, we were told to boil water for at least 10 min, I'm surprised that one minute kills everything.

I don't know about Boston/MA, but here the Public Water District has to get a series of "clean" samples before they can lift a boil order. Usually, two samples, separated in time, from their "routine" sampling points. I would speculate that in an area that size, they have numerous sampling points. (Hyper)chlorination and flushing and subsequent sampling could, indeed, take several days.

MoM: I checked the MWRA website and they are asking their 46 communities to initiate coliform samples twice tomorrow at their designated sampling points. MWRA is a water wholesaler to these cities and towns. Sounds like they have this under control and will lift the order in a day or two.

Namnezia: Americans aren't used to boiling water or its taste. They don't know how to handle tap water that isn't safe. They'll forget about ice cubes and brushing teeth and if the water looks clean and pure they'll drink it. Leningrad/St. Petersburg citizens also boil their water. I once asked a student who came from there how he liked unboiled water in the US. He said he still boils his drinking water. it's what he was used to. But for most Americans the taste is awful.

Revere: it's common to boil water in Russia (and other xUSSR countries). Tap water in Russia is drinkable, but boiling adds additional safety.

Also, boiling removes some of dissolved salts ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limescale ) which reduces the risk of kidney stones. Also, boiling removes the traces of chlorine used to disinfect water.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 02 May 2010 #permalink

a few years ago in Vancouver, during the rainy mid winter, the watersheds got contaminated by heavy amounts of silt and such from some landslides, resulting in a nearly 3 week boil water advisory.

People started brawling for cases of water in the stores, and I had the laughable moment of watching a guy pitch a fit in a small mom and pop shop that they didn't have his preferred brand of water on hand.

We're spoiled for water access. Granted at the moment my apartment's taps in an old building are fickle at best ( one day scalding, the next cold, and then none at all while repairs are done), I know we're spoiled. We simply now keep a huge pot of boiled water on hand, for the sporadic outages.

during the water advisory, I did the same, and had access to a virtually untouched vending machine at work, of bottled water, so I had little issue, with a bit of thinking and careful use.

But people brawling over cases of evian? I never thought I'd see the day but people were doing just that.

Restaurants didn't close, they just charged a buck for water since they had to use bottled, instead of the usual filtered chilled on tap whatever. Starbucks brewed happily away with the all clear from the heath dept ( filtered and heated water) and life pretty much rolled on as usual.

It seems energy-inefficient to have everyone boil their own water near the point of use, but on the other hand if you get used to not wasting it, we might come out ahead.

My mother grew up in deserts and is still horrified that we flush our toilets with drinking water. She's tried to get a grey-water system permitted, but didn't pull it off the first time; might manage it for a 'backup' system someday.

Egads, I will locate my backpacking filtration unit ASAP, and buy more cartridges.

Actually, there are some new tech filtration units for camping that are fairly cheap now. Some are low volume, but probably some unit have sufficient volume for home use.

I am totally pro grey water systems, and am amazed at how normally rational people refuse to consider them. I use grey water from my washing machine for my urban garden, and want to set up a diversion from my sinks but haven't yet. I bet grey water use is illegal here in Manhattan.

Americans aren't used to boiling water or its taste... for most Americans the taste is awful.

That's interesting, I've never noticed a change in taste from boiling. Sure warm water is weird to drink, but if you let it cool or put it in the fridge the taste is fine. I bet you couldn't tell the difference on a blind taste test. I think that chlorinating the water definitely makes the taste worse. I remember as a kid visiting southern California and being surprised that you could actually drink the tap water, but being highly disappointed at the chemical taste.

The key is telling your body there wonât be any more famines. There are two primary ways of doing this:

1. Eat real food. When youâre eating quality food and itâs assimilated efficiently, the body begins to receive what it needs to function at its best. This is one very important step in turning off the famine response. The presence of nutrient-dense food in the diet signals to the body that there is plenty of food available and thereâs no need to pile on fat stores. Digestion is also an important part of this equation because you want to make sure the real food you eat is assimilated properly. Including raw and cultured foods in your diet on a regular basis can improve your digestive health and ensure youâre getting the most out of your food.

2. Reduce stress. Another folly of modern society is the intense level of stress most of us are exposed to, often since very early childhood. Stress induces the famine response as much as dieting. After all, the body doesnât distinguish between types of stresses; the same biochemical reactions occur whether youâre stressed by your work, a difficult marriage, lack of real food, poor sleep habits or any number of stressors. So itâs very important to address this and take the appropriate steps to reducing and managing the stress in your life. Read more about the stress connection to weight loss here and here and here.

Without addressing these two components, a healthy body composition is virtually impossible to achieve. Plus, healthy food choices reduce stress, and reducing stress makes it easier to choose healthier food. So making one small change at a time really can add up, and the right choices will come more naturally over time. Granted, this involves patience and wonât produce results like "Lose 10 pounds in one week!" But it will set you on the path to lasting health.

Namnezia: Potable means that it is drinkable. In fact the exact definition from Merriam-Webster is "suitable for drinking". I'm not sure why you would boil drinkable water.