Water Treatment Options: How to Avoid Poisoning From Toxins- Part 2, by AJS

In part 1, we learned that 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. In particular, populations of cyanobacteria (a blue-green algae) may be dominated by a single species or be composed of a variety of species, some of which may not be toxic and some which have been deadly to animals. We learned about the locations, timing, and durations of cyanobacteria blooms, which occur all around the world, though in various conditions and times of the year.

Factors That Increase Cyanotoxin Production (The Biochemistry of Cyanotoxin)

To understand how to neutralize toxin production, it is necessary to study its biochemical makeup. Cyanobacteria are known to produce several bioactive compounds, including cyanotoxins.

Cyanotoxins fall into three broad groups of chemical structure: cyclic peptides, alkaloids, and lipopolysaccharides (LPS).

Cyclic Peptide Toxins (Cyanobacterial Toxins)

Globally, the most frequently found cyanobacterial toxins are the cyclic peptide toxins of the microcystin and nodularin family. They are water soluble and are unable to penetrate directly the lipid membranes of animal, plant, and bacterial cells. Therefore, to elicit their toxic effect, uptake into cells occurs through membrane transporters that otherwise carry essential biochemicals or nutrients. This restricts the target organ range in mammals largely to the liver.

Location, Light, Temperature, and pH

Mass occurrences of neurotoxic cyanobacteria have been reported from North America, Europe, and Australia, where they have caused animal poisonings. Cyanobacteria produce most toxins under conditions that are most favorable for their growth.

For example, different cyanobacterial species have different light requirements. All strains produce the most toxins when grown under their optimum light conditions. Strains and species also differ slightly in their optimum growth temperatures. The toxin content in most studies was highest at temperatures between 18°C and 25°C, whereas low (10°C) or very high temperatures (30°C) decreased toxin content. Temperature gradients caused a two- to three-fold difference in toxin content.

Studies to detect effects of pH on toxin production suggest that cells are more toxic when grown at high and low pH. Sometimes in high concentrations of phosphorus, hepatotoxic strains produced more toxins. Non-nitrogen fixing species, like Microcystis and Oscillatoria, produce more toxins under nitrogen-rich conditions.

Microcystin Breakdown

Percolation through clay soils may provide some cyanotoxin removal, but this will depend greatly on the type of clay, surface charge, and cation concentration of the water. Microcystins, being cyclic peptides, are extremely stable and resistant to chemical hydrolysis or oxidation at near neutral pH. Microcystins and nodularin remain potent even after boiling. In spite of their chemical stability and resistance to eucaryotic and many bacterial peptidases, microcystins are susceptible to breakdown by aquatic bacteria found naturally in rivers and reservoirs. These degradative bacteria appear to be reasonably common and widespread. Once the biodegradation process commences, removal of microcystin can be more than 90 per cent complete within as little as two days. This may vary depending on the water body, initial microcystin concentration, and water temperature. Microcystins can be oxidized by ozone and other strong oxidizing agents, and degraded by intense ultra violet (UV) light. In full sunlight, microcystins undergo slow photochemical breakdown and isomerisation.

Searching for the Safest Water

If you are the typical water consumer, you do not have a sophisticated, technologically advanced testing laboratory with you all the time. So, I am going to make some suggestions in keeping with generally accepted practices that a person knowledgeable on the matter of water treatment would make to adapt to field conditions.

Avoid Danger or Mitigate Danger That Cannot Be Avoided

Your strategy is to avoid danger if you can, and to mitigate danger that cannot be avoided. Pick a time of year to be in the area before the known bloom season. Typically, the conditions that cause bloom are the same year after year in an area, and these are going to repeat their cycle in a predictable fashion. Local reports by residents of the area may also make suggestions, at least on what areas to avoid. If you arrive at an area and there is a lot of scum present on and just below the surface of the water, you are asking for trouble if even to expose your skin to the contaminated water. Do not breathe it either.

Avoid Where Dead Vegetation/Fish or Downstream from Fertilizer/Weed Control Contamination

Avoid obvious areas where there is a lot of dead and dying vegetative debris or fish and the presence of other material in and around the water shed from logging or farming operations. Also, avoid where water may be contaminated by fertilizers or weed control products. Directly downstream from obvious contamination is an obvious place to avoid.

Pick Where Water Flowing and Clear

Pick a better spot where the water is flowing and looks clear. Always use your micro screen and silver- or carbon-activated water filter for preparing water for drinking and cooking. Although some toxins will pass even through the filters, those you catch and remove before consuming are important to avoid.

Plan Water Needs Ahead of Time

Keep on hand a supply of water you know is safe for your first two days. If you can, plan your water needs a few days ahead of time by bringing enough water for drinking, cooking, washing, and laundry. For example, bring in three 5-gallon water bottles, each is intended for water storage for days 3, 4, 5, which you prepare the day of your arrival in advance of its need.

Treatment of Water


You’ll need a few materials. To treat water, you will need a long, plastic tube and attached finger pump for water movement between source and water bottle, which is preferably a clear, glass bottle. You’ll also need another, separate tube and attached finger pump to move water from the water bottle to that day’s use container.

Selecting Your Water Source and Properly Drawing the Water

You do have a few steps to treat the water. The first step involves selecting your water source. Draw the water you will need always from the best available source you can find. Draw it untreated from below the surface but above the bottom.

Expose Water Full UV Sunlight

Expose your captured water to full UV sunlight for at least two days. During this time, the microorganisms will absorb much of the nitrogen and phosphorous that you cannot remove any other way. After two days, insert your other plastic tube below the water surface in the bottle, and draw off this water for screening and filtering by your usual means, including a sand or clay filter, fine screen, carbon activated and silver filter, and finally, maybe boiling. Leave what you do not use for more UV sunlight exposure.

If you draw more water for additional days, each time keep it in a separate glass bottle exposed to direct UV sunlight. Glass is better than plastic for your container.

Copper and/or Silver Added To Water Storage

Sometimes copper (pre-1982 Lincoln penny) and/or silver (pre-1965 Roosevelt dime) are added to the water storage containers. When used together, copper and silver ionization is suitable for producing safe drinking water.

Electrically charged copper ions (Cu2+) in the water are attracted to particles of opposite polarity, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Positively charged copper ions form electrostatic compounds with negatively charged cell walls of the microorganisms. These compounds disturb cell wall permeability and cause nutrient uptake to fail. Copper ions penetrate the cell wall and create an entrance for silver ions (Ag+). The silver ions penetrate the core of the microorganism. Silver ions bond to various parts of the cell, such as the DNA and RNA, cellular proteins, and respiratory enzymes, causing life support systems in the cell to be immobilized. There is no more cellular growth or cell division, preventing bacteria from multiplying.

Copper-silver ionization has a larger residual effect than most other disinfectants including ultraviolet light (UV). Copper-silver is effective throughout the entire water system and does not depend on water temperature. Copper-silver is non-corrosive and does not affect pumps, shower heads, tanks, and taps.

Would More Effort/Money Improve the Quality of the Water?

Would a lot more effort and much more money improve the quality of the water after this effort? Probably not for the average water consumer. Water quality problems and recommended treatment systems have been extensively studied, but it is usually with large and expensive units as might be used on an ocean-going yacht.

Reverse Osmosis

A reverse osmosis (RO) unit can remove a variety of inorganic chemicals, such as nitrates, calcium, and magnesium, but this does not remove cyanotoxins or microbiologicals, such as viruses. Also RO does not remove radionuclides that produce radiation.

Continuous Deionization (CDI)

Another more sophisticated apparatus employs electrodeionization (EDI), also referred to as Continuous Electro Deionization (CEDI) and Continuous Deionization (CDI). CDI utilizes ion exchange resins, which are continuously regenerated by an electrical current. The major difficulty with this method, besides its cost and the fact that it is only about 65% effective, is that a membrane is required and has similar cost and maintenance problems as RO. There is no evidence that CDI can neutralize cyanotoxins, nor remove radiation. In summary, even with two of the most advanced and expensive methods (RO and CDI), there is no proof that they neutralize and remove the cyanotoxins. This reaffirms the U.S. EPA’s conclusion that cyanotoxins are not removed by conventional water treatment procedures.

The easy and cheap methods I have suggested here will actually give you pretty good water.


Awareness of the dangers from toxins in the environment and your steps to mitigate that danger can prepare your family to enjoy the survival experience with the assurance that you will have done everything you can to ensure safe drinking water. The toxins cannot be ignored. Some toxins can be avoided entirely by careful site selection and timing for your activities. Others can be mitigated by proper neutralization procedures for your drinking water and food preparation.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been another entry for Round 79 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

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  1. I’m at a bit of a loss after reading your comments about RO.

    RO (reverse osmosis) is used extensively to prepare water for drug manufacturing. From an FDA publication: [In recent years, RO has been used increasingly in making processed water for dialysis in hospitals and for certain cosmetics and drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers. In addition to these applications, RO is capable of producing water of sufficient purity to be used as Water For Injection (WFI) and for the preparation of parenteral solutions.] (https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/InspectionTechnicalGuides/ucm072913.htm) It will certainly remove larger molecules such as radionuclides, cyanotoxins and viruses. Indeed, it can remove salt from seawater to produce drinkable water (used on every US Naval vessel, and included in life support kits for larger lifeboats). Since salt is a substantially smaller molecule than any virus…(and RO water can be used to safely make solutions for injection)… I’d submit that the only disadvantage to RO water is the cost of the equipment and the energy needed to push the water molecule through the semi-permeable membrane. Depending on the quality of the input water… some pretreatment may be needed to ensure that the membrane doesn’t get clogged.

  2. My goodness if it is this much of a pain to just get water when the world is falling apart, take me home Jesus. Get the best filter you can and try to use running water but then just pray over it and move on.

  3. I think the main idea that the author is trying to pass along is that you first must locate as clean a water source as possible and look for possible dangers. From there, take necessary steps to assure what you have is as safe as possible because any water source could be compromised by these cyanotoxins or radiation etc. You can not be 100% certain that your water is 100% safe.

  4. I’m wondering if the writer of the article can address another problem with groundwater. Since virtually everyone is downstream from a municipal sewage system releasing effluent into rivers, streams, and lakes, do the EPA accepted municipal sewage systems practices remove the synthetic Dr. prescribed pharmacy drugs in the water.

  5. While having the car serviced, I was reading the Nov 28 Wall Street Journal. Some news you might like.

    The article on the great increase in rock-climbing noted that fingerprint readers are useless with rock climbers because the calluses obscure the ridges.

    In another article, The stock price of Dick’s Sporting Goods has taken a hit since they instituted their recent firearms sales restrictions.

    Carry on.

  6. Quibble: Bacteria and Viruses are NOT toxins.
    A toxin is a molecule or compound (or element) which is harmful.

    1. It depends on the dose. If I’m getting to safety, one spring that might have heavy metals is worth drinking but not over time.

    2. You can kill organisms.

    3. distilling or filtering will remove most nasty things which don’t evaporate with the water.

    4. the things you can’t remove via distilling and (molecular) filtering are rare, so don’t drink where there’s an empty barell labeled phenol or xylene.

    Know your toxin (or potential) and act accordingly. In the deep blue zones it will be different than the deep red.

    Even in the deep red, remember animals can be carriers.

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