Water is the most crucial natural resource on our planet. Think of how often you use it in your daily life. Cooking, washing, recreation, eating and drinking all rely on water. Even some electricity-generating systems need water to spin a turbine and produce energy. From the moment you wake up to the moment you rest your head, water is a fundamental part of life.
Most people in the U.S. experience the blessing of clean water available at their convenience. Turn on the kitchen tap, and you can receive a flow of crisp, clean water right to your home. But even in America, contaminants can enter the water supply, changing the way we use and consume the water we rely on every day. Understanding boil water alerts is the first step in navigating these situations.
What Is a Boil Water Alert?
Health departments will issue a boil water alert when a contaminant enters an area’s drinking water. This instance can also go by other names, including a boil water notice or boil water advisory. Whatever its name, a boil water alert is an emergency you should take seriously. You’ll have to adjust various aspects of your life to keep you and your loved ones safe. Drinking contaminated water can be detrimental to people’s health, so the adjustments made to avoid these consequences are more than worth it.
Your local government may release a boil water “precautionary advisory.” This type of alert means there is a possibility of water contamination, but authorities have yet to confirm it. Use your best judgment during precautionary advisories, but erring on the side of caution may be in your best interest. Treat a precautionary advisory as a regular boil water alert to ensure everyone is safer from the possibility of contamination.
Contamination of your area’s water supply can happen for many reasons, including the following.
- A burst water pipe: When a water pipe bursts, exposure to outside variables compromises drinking water’s safety. Local authorities will have to fix the broken pipe and ensure water is safe to drink before you can return to typical water use.
- Issues at water treatment facilities: Local water treatment facilities have state-of-the-art equipment to clean water, so it is safe for locals to drink and use in their daily lives. If these water treatment facilities run into problems, your local authorities will be quick to issue a boil water advisory. Regardless of the pollutant, you should boil any water that comes from your home’s faucets to ensure it is safe for use and consumption.
- Natural disasters: Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods can pose a risk to your area’s water supply. Strong winds, fallen trees and chunks of dirt can damage water pipes, making water unsafe to drink. Floods can lead to harmful water conditions, as they add unknown organisms, particles, pollutants and bacteria into the water supply.
A primary source of concern during any of the above events is sewage getting into the water supply. Some waterborne illnesses that could spread through sewage include diarrhea, cholera, E. coli and salmonella. Always be careful to boil your water or stock up on bottled water to supplement your needs throughout the emergency. Ensure your water is clean before you drink it or use it for other purposes like cleaning your house or washing dishes.
How Do Boil Water Alerts Work?
It’s essential to keep calm and maintain a steady focus during boil water alerts. As long as you continue to have water running to your home, you and your family will make it through. Be sure to follow your local boil water advisory to stay current with the latest information for your area. Following their instructions will ensure your family remains safe, even as you make some adjustments to your life and routine.
You can tune into your local news station on your TV or radio to learn about the state of your boil water alert. These avenues of information work, but other modern methods can be more helpful to you. If your town uses an emergency mass notification system, you can receive boil water alerts right to your phone. You’ll stay abreast of the latest information and know when you can return to typical water use without missing a beat after receiving your local update.
Contact your local authorities to learn if you can register your phone number to receive local alerts and other updates, so you’re always ready in case of a boil water alert and other emergencies.
Boil Water Alert Tips
You can make it through a boil water alert with the right practices. You’ll have to make some adjustments to your daily routine, but these changes will help keep you and your loved ones safer throughout the event. Here are five helpful tips to use if your area is going through a boil water alert.
1. Boiling Water the Correct Way
Boiling your water to make it safe to consume and use is the cornerstone of a boil water alert. Failing to boil your water before drinking can result in illness and other negative consequences. Be sure to boil your water the correct way to reduce your risk of these outcomes.
Here is a step-by-step process for boiling your water.
- Step one: Fill a pot with water from your faucet. If the water is cloudy, you may wish to run it through a coffee filter or clean cloth to remove any sediment or particles. Feel free to skip the filtering process if your water looks clear.
- Step two: Bring the water in the pot to a rolling boil. How long do you boil water for a boil alert? Hold this boil for one minute at elevations below 6,500 feet. For elevations above 6,500 feet, you’ll have to boil water for three minutes to destroy any contaminants. Note that coffeemakers can’t hold the correct temperature long enough to remove pollutants, so you should use a stovetop pot or electric kettle for this step if available.
- Step three: Let the water cool before storing or drinking it. Placing a pot of freshly boiled water in the fridge may put unnecessary strain on your fridge’s cooling system. And, of course, hot water can cause severe injury to anyone who tries to drink it. Let it rest on the counter until it reaches room temperature before use.
2. Using Your Boiled Water
Once you’ve boiled your water, it’s safe to use for several household purposes. Water is essential for everyday life, from quenching thirst to completing your daily routines. Here are a few of the ways you can use your boiled water.
- Drinking: People drink a lot of water every day. According to the Mayo Clinic, men and women should consume about 15.5 and 11.5 cups of fluid per day, respectively. Depending on the size of your pot, storage containers and your family, you may need to do a lot of boiling to quench everyone’s thirst.
- Making ice: Many modern refrigerators make ice using the water from your water lines. This ice is unsafe for consumption during boil water alerts. You must boil water from your faucet and let it cool before filling ice trays if you wish to use ice during a boil water alert. When your local government lifts the boil water mandate, you should run your ice maker and discard the ice repeatedly over a 24-hour period before it is safe to consume.
- Preparing food and drinks: Many foods and beverages need water. From cooking soup or pasta to brewing tea or mixing a drink, water is essential. Make sure to only use boiled water in your recipes to keep yourself and your family members safe as you eat and drink. Remember to use pre-boiled water when brewing coffee, as coffeemakers can’t decontaminate water during a boil water alert.
- Caring for pets: Pets can become ill from the same germs as their owners, and owners can catch illnesses from their pets. You should only give boiled or bottled, distilled water to your pets to ensure they stay safe from whatever contaminant has entered your local water supply.
- Preparing baby formula: It’s paramount that you prepare baby formula with pre-boiled water to keep your infant healthy and happy. Also, be sure to sterilize your baby’s bottles and accessories before use.
- Brushing your teeth: Brushing your teeth with water from the tap puts you at risk of accidentally swallowing dangerous substances. Use pre-boiled or distilled water when brushing your teeth to enjoy clean teeth without the risk of contamination.
3. Washing Dishes During a Boil Water Alert
The CDC recommends using disposable plates, utensils and cups during a boil water alert to simplify the process of keeping everyone in your family safe from dangerous water. If you’d rather continue using your regular dishes, you’ll have to take a few extra precautions. Dishwashers are safe to use if the water’s temperature during the final rinse cycle reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit. You’re also safe to use your dishwasher if it has a sanitizing cycle that uses high heat to sanitize your dishes.
Hand-washing your dishes during a boil water alert will take a bit more effort. Here are some steps to follow if you plan on washing your dishes by hand:
- Wash and rinse as usual, being sure to use hot water and soap. If you have a two-sided sink, do this step on one side, leaving the other empty for the next step. You could also use a separate, oversized container for step 2.
- Add one teaspoon of unscented bleach to a separate basin per one gallon of warm water. Combine these elements to create a sanitizing solution for your dishes.
- Soak your rinsed dishes in this solution for at least a minute.
- Remove dishes from the sanitizing solution and let them air dry before using.
4. Cleaning Surfaces During a Boil Water Alert
Many people use water to clean inside and outside their homes. During typical days, you can use convenient water straight from your sink or outdoor hose to perform your cleaning routines. However, cleaning practices are a bit different during a boil water alert.
If you need to do some cleaning during these times, you should use boiled water, bottled water or a sterilized water and bleach solution. Using your regular household water could contaminate various surfaces and objects in and around your home. Be especially careful to use sterilized water to clean areas your family will touch, as some contaminants can transfer via contact.
5. Going to Restaurants or School During a Boil Water Alert
Some restaurants in your area may stay open during a boil water alert. Restaurants receive specific orders from environmental health officers on how to safely operate during these times. If a restaurant follows these orders and remains open, you can dine there knowing your food, beverages, dishes and utensils are safe. Restaurants can even serve fountain drinks if their equipment uses distillation or reverse osmosis.
Schools may or may not stay open during a boil water alert. Your school board will decide based on their staff’s and students’ needs while using information given to them by health and safety authorities. Stay informed with your area’s current news to decide if it is safe to send your child to school during a boil water alert.
Boil Water Alert FAQs
A boil water alert can be a time of uncertainty. Here are some frequently asked questions about boil water alerts to help you prepare for and make it through such a situation.
What Happens If You Drink Water During a Boil Alert?
Drinking water straight from the tap during a boil water alert can have severe consequences. The water may contain contaminants that put you at risk of various illnesses and health issues. Microorganisms, particles from the sewage system and unfiltered debris all pose risks to your health and well-being during a boil water alert.
Avoid drinking water from the tap at all costs during a boil water alert. Consider the water that comes from your faucet during these times as unfit to drink unless you take the proper steps to clean it. Stay current with updates from your local authorities to know when water from the tap is safe to drink again.
Is It Healthy to Boil Water for Drinking?
As its name states, a boil water alert tells people in a given area to boil their water before consumption. While drinking water straight from the tap could have dangerous consequences, boiled water is safe to drink because the high temperature kills any disease-causing bacteria.
The good news is that boiling water to remove contaminants is fast and easy. At elevations below 6,500 feet, bringing water to a rolling boil for one minute is enough to make it safe to drink and use for other purposes. At elevations above 6,500 feet, you’ll need to boil your water for three minutes to remove contaminants. Once the water cools, it’s OK to drink.
Can You Shower During a Boil Water Alert?
You can shower during a boil water alert. Be sure to take the correct precautions and instruct members of your household to do the same, as showering during a boil water alert poses some risks. Make sure everyone in your family avoids drinking any water from the showerhead during their shower.
Keep your mouth closed during the length of your shower. If you have toddlers or infants who need help bathing, take every measure to ensure the water stays out of their mouths. Consider giving infants and toddlers sponge baths to reduce their risk of ingestion. Explain to the members of your household that it is still safe to shower, but they need to take these extra precautions to keep themselves safe.
Can You Wash Clothes During a Boil Order?
If the water entering your house is free from dirty substances, you are safe to do your laundry as usual. Hot water cycles and the heat from your dryer will help sanitize your clothing, giving you peace of mind. The real risk during boil water alerts is drinking contaminated water, which is almost impossible during a standard laundry routine.
For this reason, you can wash your clothes with confidence during a boil water alert. Your family can wear washed clothes without any negative consequences. As always, listen to local authorities to learn about any special precautions or suggestions during the boil water alert, as every situation can be different.
Can You Drink Filtered Water During a Boil Order?
You should only drink properly boiled water during a boil water alert in your area. Activated charcoal filters and other forms of household water filters can’t remove contaminants associated with boil water alerts. Only drink water after boiling it, and avoid using your filters during these emergencies.
Running water through your filters can contaminate them. Then, when you use the filter after the boil water alert has ended, you could put yourself at risk of drinking a lingering contaminant. If your area is under a boil water alert, retire your filters and only drink water after boiling it. You can store boiled water indefinitely, so keep it in your fridge in a sealed container to always have some drinking water available.
How Long Do Boil Orders Last?
Boil water orders can last any length of time. Due to the many possible reasons for a boil water alert, the length of time one lasts will vary. Most boil water alerts last 24 to 48 hours, but in extreme circumstances, these emergencies can last far longer. It all depends on the cause of the alert and how fast local agencies can fix the issue.
Your local authorities will put out a statement when the water in your area is safe to drink again. In the meantime, you’ll need to practice patience in case the boil water alert lasts for an extended period.
How to See If There Is a Boil Water Advisory
The last thing you want is to drink water that contains pollutants, microorganisms or other contaminants. Your local water company will put out statements if the water is unsafe to drink. Make sure you subscribe to any available e-newsletters or sign up for text alerts that come straight to your smartphone.
In today’s society, information travels fast. You may lack time to turn on the news or read the local paper to learn about a boil water alert. These electronic updates will let you know when your area is under a boil water order and when the water is safe to drink again. Avail yourself of these automatic alerts to stay informed and keep yourself and your family safer.
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