Safe Drinking Water Supply Key Following Storms

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June 18, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. — Recent tornadoes left some residents without a potable drinking water supply. As cleanup begins, many will rely on commercially bottled water. In some cases, bottling and hauling water as needed might be an option, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension water quality educator says.

"You might draw water from a nearby public water system tap or from a water vending machine at a nearby location," said Sharon Skipton, UNL Extension water quality educator.

Water vending machines are systems plumbed into a public water supply where customers fill their own containers with treated water.

Many types of containers are available for water storage, including those made of glass and plastic. Glass provides an effective container for water storage but is easily broken and heavier than plastic.

 Glass containers manufactured and advertised for food storage will be safe. Plastic containers manufactured and used for food or beverage storage or which are advertised as food-quality containers also will be safe, Skipton said.

Plastic jugs with tight fitting, secure lids that have contained juice, punch, or other edible substances are safe for emergency water storage. However, these containers can degrade over time and should not be used repeatedly.

"Avoid using plastic milk containers if possible, as fat traces may remain," Skipton said. "If used, wash thoroughly, giving special attention to hard-to-reach areas such as handles."

New containers can be purchased in most housewares and sporting goods departments, as well as at some water vending locations. New containers should be labeled for storage of food or beverages. Some containers deemed safe for water storage may affect the taste of stored water.

Skipton recommends washing the containers and lids thoroughly with hot tap water and dish detergent.

"Rinse thoroughly with hot tap water, or wash in a dishwasher," she said.

While the water from a public water supply should be free of disease causing organisms, bacteria can be inadvertently introduced into the water during the collection and storage process. Treating the water with a chemical disinfectant will deactivate organisms that might be present in the storage containers, or that might be introduced as the water is collected, Skipton said.

Some, but not all, public water supplies are disinfected with chlorine or chloramines. These water supplies may contain enough residual disinfectant to deactivate pathogens that might be introduced during the water storage process, making additional treatment prior to storage unnecessary.

For water supplies that are not disinfected with chlorine or chloramines, or for an additional safety margin, follow these directions:

Use liquid household chlorine bleach that contains 4 to 6 percent sodium hypochlorite. Bleach that contains fragrances, soaps, surfactants or other additives should not be used for drinking water disinfection. Use the freshest container of liquid chlorine bleach available, preferably not more than three months old. Add six drops of bleach per gallon of water using a clean uncontaminated medicine dropper.

Stir the water, cover, and allow it to stand for 30 minutes. One should be able to smell chlorine after the 30-minute waiting period. If there isn't a chlorine smell, add another dose and let the water stand covered another 15 minutes. Cap containers. Store the containers in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight if at all possible.

This information was adapted from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension NebGuide "Drinking Water: Storing An Emergency Supply," available at local UNL Extension offices or online.  

Sharon O. Skipton
Water Quality Educator
UNL Extension

Sandi Alswager Karstens
IANR News Service

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