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Water safety and treatment while walking

  • Thread starter Deleted member 67185
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Deleted member 67185

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This short guide is meant to be a broad overview of the issue of water safety and treatment while walking. It is purposefully sparse in scientific geek speak and literature overviews in order to give those who are interested in the topic a place to start their own research. When specific equipment is mentioned, including things which I personally use, it is not a iron-clad recommendation. As can be seen from discussions surrounding gear choices from shoes to backpacks to water container types, each individual will find what device or technique has the features and function that suits their personal needs.

As someone who has made a career within Public Health at a government health district, I will note that the infrastructure for safe drinking water in Spain is easily the equivalent of any other EU country and other modern, western nations. In general, Spain's drinking water is very safe, and even safer than some other 1st world nations.

I never routinely filter my drinking water when in Spain. There is simply no need to do so. The purpose of this guideline is NOT to imply that the Spanish drinking water supply is questionable.

Like happens in every other first world country, very infrequent and unexpected and temporary outbreaks of waterborne pathogens - from isolated contaminations that are accidentally introduced into the water system - can occur within a small locale. These cases are usually caught quickly, and notifications are issued to residents and others with advisories to boil or disinfect drinking water until the contamination issue is corrected. This happens in every modern country.

Our immune systems normally allow us a wide tolerance with the unintentional and unnoticed intake of germs and microorganisms. This enables us to safely consume limited concentrations of pathogens or parasites in food and water. Our immune systems deal with this intrusion and keep us from becoming ill.

Standards of food preparation and storage, and water sanitation and storage, are designed to reduce and/or keep the level of germs and microorganisms below the threshold concentrations necessary to make us sick. It does not necessarily either need to -- or achieve -- complete sterilization of those things we consume. It can do so, but in many instances that is not the goal. When we become ill from food or water or from directly touching contaminated environmental surfaces, it is because we have had contact with, and exposed ourselves to, a concentration of the bad stuff that is greater than what our immune systems can handle to keep such exposures from becoming an illness or disease.

However, the tolerance for germ exposures for those with normal immune systems can sometimes be too much and turn deadly for those whose immune systems are compromised or not fully developed. For example, this is the reason why it is a good idea to not give honey to a child under 1 year of age.

Honey may be a carrier for spores of Clostridium Botulinum bacteria (botulism) as the result of dirt and dust which frequently contaminates honey. If present, the concentration of those spores is limited and the toxins at very low levels. The spores do not multiply in the honey. For adults and older children, that spore concentration is easily handled by the immune system and is of no real consequence. Infants and young children haven't yet 'matured' their immune systems enough to handle even that low spore concentration.

As with all geographic areas in the world, untreated water sources in Spain - - like surface waters (rivers, lakes, and streams) - - should be thought of as always at-risk for various bacteria and parasites. Viruses are far less frequently an issue in the wild. Heavy metal and chemical contamination may also affect surface waters, but those are not usually an issue outside of industrial and urbanized areas.

As Camino pilgrims in Spain, we often see Fuentes (fountains) as we walk. Much of the time they are labeled as potable (drinkable) or non potable (not specifically treated, or it is suspect). There are various Spanish words or phrases or emblems that are used to indicate non-potability at a fuente, and it is helpful to learn them. I leave it to others to post what words and phrases and symbols they have seen in this regard. In any case, it never hurts to filter the water from these fountains, just in case.

There is a second issue to consider with regard to drinking water, as mentioned above, and that is the unique issue of the individual who is immune compromised due to either illness or genetics or age (very young or very old), or who are receiving certain medical treatments and medications. While normal individuals in reasonable health can and do safely consume water that is not absolutely and completely free from pathogens, the same consumption can mean severe illness or death to those with immune systems which are dysfunctional.

For these individuals, it is sometimes recommended to always filter water, or to use purified bottled water when traveling . . . even in 1st world countries. For at risk individuals, routinely purchasing bottled water is an option. However, even for immune compromised individuals, water filtration can be a great solution that is less expensive than bottled water and far more flexible when dealing with diverse or limited water sources.

What Are The Treatment Options?

Purifiers vs. Filters

Purifiers are not the same as filters. If your medical or personal situation is one where a purifier is needed, check the product information.

Filters:

This type of treatment system mechanically pushes water through an actual filter media, straining out bacteria and protozoa based on the size of those pathogens. Some, but not all filters will eliminate viruses. Keep in mind that the need to eliminate viruses is rarely needed, unless traveling to certain undeveloped regions of the world.

Filters work by forcing water thru 'pores' in the filtering media. Because parasites/protozoa, cysts, bacteria, viruses, etc have specific sizes, the goal is to have a 'pore' or 'hole' size that is too small for the organism to fit through, but which will still allow water to pass. Think of how a strainer works when you are rinsing dried beans under running water.

Contaminated water goes in on one end, then comes out clean at the other end.

There are subcategories of filtering devices (gravity fed, pumps, hand forced or squeezed, etc) which I won't get into. They all work on the same 'strainer effect' principal. They only differ on how they apply force in order to force water through the filtering media.

So what is the ideal 'pore' size to look for? I look for a a pore size that is stated to be no larger than 0.1 microns in size.

All of the bacteria (eColi, samonella, cholera) parasites, cysts, and protozoa (amoebas, giardia, lamblia, cryptosporidia) are larger than 0.1 microns, and thus cannot pass thru that size of a pore. Most of those organisms I mention above are larger than 0.5 microns.

Most viruses that may exist in contaminated waters are smaller than 0.1 microns in size, but viruses are not much of an issue unless you are traveling to third world areas, so I do not focus on that level of sanitation.

When large amounts of water are not needed - - for example, in campsites with multiple people - - I have listed below some examples of filters that are easy to use, easy to maintain, compact and lightweight, and which will quickly produce plenty of drinkable water for one to four people. Again, this is not a complete list, but simply a selection of those filters which are highly recommended, proven effective, and have good quality control in the manufacturing process.

Purifiers:

These are devices which work to eliminate all viruses, bacteria, parasites, cysts, and protozoa. This level of sanitation is often a good idea if you are traveling in areas where waterborne viruses are a problem. As stated above, this is not really an issue in 1st world nations, unless flooding or other natural disasters have impacted the water system infrastructures.

Types of Purifiers

There are three broad categories:
  • Mechanical filters
  • Chemical agents
  • Ultraviolet devices
Mechanical
These filters are bigger and heavier than the type previously discussed above. The reason for this is, the much smaller pore size in the filtering media that is needed to eliminate viruses is so small, it takes a much larger filtering surface in order to get a reasonable amount of water processed within a reasonable amount of time.

Katadyn is the pioneer in these devices, and it is what I rely on when in the suck. . . along with chemical agents as backup.

Chemical
This process relies on the addition of one or more chemicals being placed into a container of contaminated water. In some instances, the water temperature can greatly affect the both the time it takes for the water to be disinfected, as well as the amount of chemical that must be added to the container.

Please note that some chemicals are more effective than others, especially if water is cloudy or discolored. For all the chemicals, there is a waiting period that must be observed in order for disinfection to occur, which is unlike mechanical filtration which produces immediately drinkable water.

Here are a few of the most popular and effective types:

Devices
This is a unique category that relies on technology to zap water. These devices are based on introducing the UV spectrum into the container of water, pressing a button, and letting enough time elapse to blast the nasties ability to reproduce to oblivion. Yup, it doesn't necessarily kill the little do-bads, it keeps them from ever having little do-bads.

I am unabashedly prejudiced against, and hateful of these things. Why? Because they rely on technologies which can and do fail. I know. It happened to me when backpacking in an area with limited water access. Do you know how long it takes to boil 2 liters of water over a fire in a 1/2 liter mug as your in-situ water sanitation backup plan?

These devices are quick and simple to use. The will kill all biological contaminants. They are light and compact. Just make sure you have a Plan B if technology decides to up-chuck all over you. Here are a few of the better rated devices that have been around for a while now:

Yeah. . . a bit sparse in the choices, but if power dependent UV technology is your thing, SteriPen is what seems to work best. Other manufacturers will come up with a version of the technology and then down the line, they disappear and can no longer be found.

So, that's the overview.

Oh, one more thing. . . If you put contaminated water in your drinking container (bottle or bladder), that container then must be disinfected before putting clean water in it. If you don't, the nice clean water will become contaminated.
 

Bradypus

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
I am a fan of the Sawyer Mini. Lightweight and fits directly on most screw-top soft drinks bottles or can be used with a straw attachment. I have used mine to drink spring and stream water in Spain, the UK, Japan and Australia with no ill effects so far.
 
Camino(s) past & future
2 Camino Frances, next: April 2020 Primitivo
Thank you very much for this information 😊👍 I have just ordered one of the products you mention here. I have a diagnose that does not combine well with stomach problems, so I found this very useful.
 
Last edited:

trecile

Camino Addict
Camino(s) past & future
Francés (2016 & 2017), Norte (2018), Francés-Salvador-Norte (2019), Portuguese (2019)
I never routinely filter my drinking water when in Spain.
Could you put this in large bold letters, and at the beginning of your post? I'm afraid that many people will get the idea that they need to purify the water from the tap in Spain.
There's already been a response in the cryotosporidiun thread from an experienced pilgrim who is now worried about ice cubes in Spain.
 

martin1ws

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
Somport to Finisterre Jul-Aug 2018; Munich to Lindau (Germany) Sep 2020
...
I never routinely filter my drinking water when in Spain. There is simply no need to do so. The purpose of this guideline is NOT to imply that the Spanish drinking water supply is questionable.
...

As Camino pilgrims in Spain, we often see Fuentes (fountains) as we walk. Much of the time they are labeled as potable (drinkable) or non potable (not specifically treated, or it is suspect). There are various Spanish words or phrases or emblems that are used to indicate non-potability at a fuente, and it is helpful to learn them. I leave it to others to post what words and phrases and symbols they have seen in this regard. In any case, it never hurts to filter the water from these fountains, just in case.
...
Other phrases for not drinkable... see this posting & thread:
 

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