A water main breaks and a boil water alert is issued.
Does boiling water need to include every drop for brushing teeth and bathing to cooking and drinking?
In a nutshell, yes and no.
According to the Great Lakes Water Authority, tap water may be used for showering, baths, shaving and washing, but don’t swallow water or allow it to get in your eyes, nose or mouth.
Children and individuals with disabilities should have their baths supervised to make sure water is not ingested. Minimize bathing time.
Though the risk of illness is minimal, individuals who have recent surgical wounds, have compromised immune systems, or have a chronic illness may want to consider using bottled or boiled water for cleansing until the advisory is lifted. People at increased risk should seek advice about drinking water from their health care provider.
But do not brush teeth with tap water. Use bottled water or water that has been boiled or disinfected as you would for drinking.
Boiled or bottled water should be used for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth and preparing food.
Boiling water kills harmful bacteria and parasites that may be in the water (freezing will not disinfect water). The Environmental Protection Agency advises to bring tap water to a full rolling boil for at least 1 minute to kill most infectious organisms (germs). Cool before using.
The GLWA says the advisory is a notification issued by your local community as a precautionary measure. Boil water advisories are distributed if there is actually or the possibility of microbiological contamination in the drinking water system that could make you sick.
But what if you already drank tap water or prepared oatmeal with it this morning?
According to the GLWA website: “Even if someone has consumed potentially contaminated water before they were aware of the boil water advisory, the likelihood of becoming ill is low. Anyone experiencing symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, with or without fever, should contact their healthcare provider. Symptoms associated with waterborne illness are also associated with foodborne illness, or even the common cold. Most of these illnesses are not usually serious or life threatening except in the elderly, the very young or those with compromised immune systems. “
Bottled water is a safe alternative if boiling water is not an option.
But what if a person cannot boil water and does not have access to bottled water?
Staying safe will take a bit more work.
The CDC advises to use a clean, sanitized container, disinfect tap water by adding 8 drops, about 1/8 teaspoon, of plain unscented household bleach to a gallon of water. Thoroughly mix the solution and allow the water to stand for 30 minutes. If the water is cloudy, repeat the process. Use a container with a cap or cover for disinfecting water. This will prevent re-contamination.
Vigorous handwashing with soap and your tap water is safe for basic personal hygiene. But when washing your hands to prepare food, you should use boiled (then cooled) water, disinfected or bottled water with soap. You also can use antiseptic hand-sanitizers available in gels or foams.
Hand-washed dishes can be washed in potentially contaminated water if they are thoroughly rinsed for a minute in a bleach solution (1 tablespoon bleach per gallon of water). Allow dishes to completely air dry. Most household dishwashers don’t reach the proper temperature to sanitize dishes or use the sani-cycle (heated water cycle) on your dishwasher. It is safe to wash clothes in tap water.
Babies also will require extra care.
During a boil water advisory, breastfeeding mothers who are breastfeeding should continue to breastfeed their babies. The CDC advises to wash and sterilize all baby bottles and nipples before each use. If this is not possible, then single-serve, ready to feed bottles of formula must be used with a sterilized nipple. Always boil water before mixing concentrated liquid or powdered formula. If unable to boil water, water may be disinfected as described for drinking.
The proper way to disinfect water so it is safe to drink — or to prepare other drinks like baby bottles, drink mixes and frozen juices — is boiling.
Be mindful of your pets.
The same precautions that are taken to protect humans should be applied to household pets, according to the GLWA. If the animal’s water needs to be changed, use boiled or bottled water.