Doom and Bloom: Boiling Water – How Long to Disinfect?

The Altons at Doom and Bloom Medicine have another fine article up, this time on boiling water and how long it takes to disinfect it.


a pan and water boiing on the top of a stove

You and I know that we need water to live, but the quality of that water is important. So important, as a matter of fact, that it could mean the difference between good health and life-threatening disease. Sickness caused by contaminated water has stopped armies in their tracks and changed the course of history.

How long do you have to boil water for it be safely drinkable?

The old saying goes “ask a bunch of doctors the same question, get a bunch of answers”. You ask a bunch of survivalists about boiling water, well, you might get a bunch of answers. If you consider that the fuel and time required to boil water might be limited in certain survival scenarios, however, it’s a serious question.

There are all sorts of disease-causing microbes, also called pathogens, that are harmful to humans and can be found in water. These include protozoa, bacteria and viruses. The protozoal microbes that could get you sick include cryptosporidium and giardia. Harmful bacteria include salmonella, shigella, and e. coli. Viruses that contaminate water include things like hepatitis, enterovirus, and norovirus.

There are various ways to disinfect water. Bleach is popular, iodine will work, and UV sterilization using direct sunlight on clear bottles of water for a good 8 hours is another way. Of all ways you can disinfect water, however, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (the CDC) recommends boiling as the best method. They have an excellent PDF you can download, by the way, called Drinking Water Treatment Methods for Backcountry and Travel Use”.

The CDC believe that none of the methods other than boiling are 100% effective in killing all disease-causing bugs. Even bleach takes several days to kill some organisms like cryptosporidium, something we talked about on the Survival Medicine podcast a few months ago. Of course, The CDC (and I) suggest that cloudy water should be filtered as well as disinfected. You can improvise a filter but some popular commercial lightweight filters include the Mini-Sawyer and theLifestraw

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