Water Treatment Options: How to Avoid Poisoning From Toxins- Part 1, by AJS

Long-term survivalists find themselves in many environmental settings, but the common denominator is often the desire to be close to fresh water. A person needs it to drink, cook, bathe, do laundry, perhaps wash prospecting finds, and even fish and swim in as recreation for family members.

Dangers in Raw, Natural Ground Water

In raw, natural ground water there are dangers. These include:

  • chemicals, such as nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff,
  • microorganisms feeding on pollution that can cause disease,
  • heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic, which have implications to human health, and
  • toxins caused by algae.

The survivalist does not cause this situation. It is the reality of living on a planet with a lot of people, who are doing a lot of things to make a living.

About Me

Here is a little about me and the information provided in this article. I earned a PhD and am retired from my career. The content in this article is provided as general information only. The ideas expressed are solely my opinion. Such opinion is based upon information I consider to be reliable.

Popular Television Survivalists Not Shown Steps To Clean Water For Indefinite Stay

Popular television programs on survival have given many helpful hints as to how to treat water in an emergency. Bear Grylls Man versus Wild, Dave and Cody Dual Survivor, Ruth and Myke Man, Woman, Wild, and the pioneer of survival shows, Les Stroud Survivorman have informed and entertained. What one of these will do to stay alive one more day until rescued is not the same as what he or she would do for an indefinite stay at that location. Not one of these survivalists has really reported on the magnitude of the problem of finding potable water nor shown the steps needed to clean up natural water in non-emergency settings such as those typified by a person(s) who enters the wilderness with a plan and prior preparation.

The Presence of Toxins in Water

Water is the universal solvent, and as such, starts collecting contaminants as soon as it leaves the cloud. The major cause of mercury in drinking water is from volcanoes, and the major man-made source is Asian coal-burning power plants. The new U.S. regulations will not control those sources of contamination.

Some Toxins Cannot Be Avoided

Unfortunately, even toxins other than mercury cannot be avoided entirely in the drinking water, as some are not removed by screens, activated carbon or silver water filters, or chlorine treatment. Some toxins are even made more toxic by boiling. Furthermore, some toxins cause physical symptoms of poisoning almost immediately.

Effects of Toxins

The cumulative effect of some toxins may shorten life from the irreversible damage to the telomeres of the DNA. Water-borne toxins, radiation, mercury and methylmercury, and micro-biologicals are among the threats to the health of people in the field. As a whole, toxins are colorless, tasteless, and odorless. It has long been known that water-borne toxins threaten the health of humans and livestock. Some neurotoxins have been implicated as a significant environmental risk in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Experts have recognized that the toxins are not removed by conventional water treatment procedures, such as boiling or chlorination. It is for that reason that in 1998 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) included freshwater cyanobacteria and their toxins on the first Candidate Contaminant List (CCL).

Technological Advances in Toxin Contamination Detection

The problem of securing uncontaminated drinking water has been recognized since civilization. The magnitude of the toxin contamination has only been appreciated during the last few decades because of the technological advances in detection, such as by high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). The development of analytical methods, such as HPLC, and more recently, the enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), and the protein phosphatase assay (for microcystins and nodularins) has made the quantification of total and individual toxins possible. About one new toxin is discovered every few months. It was always there but only recognized as better detection techniques were applied.


Cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae Cyanophyceae) comprises unicellular to multicellular prokaryotes. The presence of toxins in these microorganisms assists them in disease prevention and predatory defense. This blue-green algae may have lived in that water since the water source originated, maybe even as long as a million years. The exact chemical conditions of the water– including its nutrients, pH, and UV exposure to direct sunlight and temperature– will determine which of the over 100,000 species is present and which of those is dominant at the time of year.

Cyanobacterial populations may be dominated by a single species or be composed of a variety of species, some of which may not be toxic. Measurements of samples taken at the same time from different parts of a lake may show wide divergence in cyanotoxin content and concentrations.

The Puzzle of Whether Water is Potable

The puzzle for the consumer is whether the available water is potable. The problem is there is no visual test for cleanliness. You assume there will be some microorganism life present in the water, but you cannot tell if it is toxic. Typically, the consumer will draw the water from where it is clearest in appearance. Then, they will filter the draw with a common camping, fine screen, silver or carbon filter, and finally, for the very cautious, they’ll boil it to be sure it is fit to drink. Unfortunately, those procedures still do not guarantee pure drinking water. Some toxins get by all of those screens and are actually made stronger by boiling. Research has recently proven this. The equipment to test for this has been developed only in the last several years, and it is expensive bulky laboratory equipment that is unrealistic to take into the field.

No Adequate Methods of Testing for Cyanotoxins But Steps to Mitigate Toxins

There are no adequate methods of testing for the cyanotoxins in the field setting. Nevertheless, there are methods to mitigate the dangers to human health while in the field. However, what I intend to do here is to describe the water conditions that most typically correlate with safety for drinking, and the steps you can take to mitigate the toxins that may be present.

Toxic Cyanobacteria (Beware the Bloom)

The toxicity of cyanobacteria was originally brought to the attention of scientists by farmers and veterinarians through reports of animal poisonings. In most reported cases, afflicted animals consumed water where there was an obvious presence of a cyanobacteria scum on the water surface.

The cyanotoxins are a diverse group of natural toxins. Toxicity can have hepatotoxic, neurotoxic, and dermatotoxic effects, or general inhibition of protein synthesis. Throughout the world, it appears that liver-toxic (hepatotoxic, microcystin-containing) freshwater blooms of cyanobacteria are more commonly found than neurotoxic blooms. Liver-toxic blooms have been reported from all continents and almost every part of the world where samples have been collected for analysis. Mass occurrences of toxic cyanobacteria are not always associated with human activities causing pollution with resultant eutrophication.

Location, Timing, and Duration of Blooms

Massive blooms of toxic cyanobacteria have been reported in Australian reservoirs with pristine or near-pristine catchments (watersheds), and toxic cyanobacteria have killed cattle drinking from oligotrophic high-alpine waters in Switzerland. The location can vary widely.

The timing and duration of the bloom season of cyanobacteria depends largely on the climatic conditions of the region. In temperate zones, mass occurrences of cyanobacteria are most prominent during the late summer and early autumn and may last months. Those are often the months when most consumers need water. In regions with more Mediterranean or subtropical climates, the bloom season may start earlier and persist longer. In dry years, in tropical or subtropical areas of China, Brazil, and Australia, cyanobacterial blooms may occur almost all year round. Blooms of cyanobacteria have even been found in winter under ice in Scandinavian and German lakes.

Tomorrow, before we delve into how to search for and more effectively treat ground water for improved safety, we will look further into the factors that increase cyanotoxin production. An understanding of the toxin is necessary in order to minimize risks when selecting water sources and working to increase your family’s chance for survival.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

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  1. Yep, even standard distillation processes do not guarantee pure water. There are chemicals that evaporate and condense at exactly the same temp/pressure as water does.

  2. Fascinating and timely since I have been deliberating a proper filtration system for my home water tap. Looking forward to the next installment. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge on this crucial topic.

  3. When we moved into our mountain place in 2008, we had the well tested and it was fine. When we sold the place in 2013 the water was again tested. It had dangerously high levels of uranium. Required an expensive filter. I guess that’s quite common when there’s lots of granite on the mountain.

    1. Seems to be pointing that way, though in many municipalities you can no longer legally collect what falls on your own property. A few years ago, a relative of mine built a nice multi-barrel collection system to harness the runoff from his roof, but had to do so clandestinely. His system held enough water at maximum capacity provide several gallons per person per day for a month.

      A word of advice to anyone who chooses to pursue such a project, though…make sure to test and/or actually use it on a reasonable basis. My relative’s system was a real beauty upon completion and was built well, but fell to neglect over the next few years and eventually became tainted with crud from disuse. He had to disassemble and dispose of the entire contraption when he later sold the house. Build what you’ll use, and use what you build (same principle we apply to our beans and bullets). No sense in preparing for something and finding it’s not working properly when the emergency finally arises.

  4. A carbon filter will remove bacteria.
    Collecting rain water is good for flushing toliets/ taking showers/ washing clothes but not drinking without treating.
    We have a clorine treatment right before our pump and it works well with our well water input.

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