Purifying drinking water is one of the most important things any prepper can do in an emergency. Whether you’re bugging in or out, you can depend on your local water supply containing all kinds of nasty germs that can make you gravely ill, or worse.
To combat this, preppers rely on all kinds of water purification methods, among them filtration and chemical additives. These time-tested methods are most often effective against common contaminants that can make you sick.
But even if you are prepared with these countermeasures, there is one class of contaminants in your water that you are likely unprepared for dealing with: Heavy metals.
Heavy metal contamination of water is common and dangerous, being both difficult to detect and persistent, remaining in the water source even after it has been treated with sterilization chemicals, or passed through filters, even multiple times.
You can wind up with heavy metal contamination in your drinking water if you are in the middle of the wilderness or in the middle of the city. To deal with this persistent threat you need to learn a few special methods that are proven effective against heavy metal contamination.
Positive Biological Effects of Heavy Metals
When you hear the term heavy metal used in the context of water sources, you probably think of man-made contamination, runoff from factories and refineries, things like that.
In reality, heavy metals are actually naturally occurring elements found right on the periodic table.
Despite being far denser than water across the board, they can be dissolved into the tiniest particles. In fact, they can be dissolved into particles so small they can slip right through most filtration systems.
Quite a few heavy metals are actually necessary for maintaining and regulating bodily functions, and preserving your health. We all know that sodium is required, at least in limited amounts, along with standbys like calcium, potassium, zinc and copper. You can look on the back of any multivitamin or ask any doctor and they will confirm it.
Beneficial heavy metals (in the right, minute concentrations) will handle everything from firing your muscle contractions to the clotting of blood, bone growth, enamel maintenance, cellular hydration and electrolyte balance. Turns out heavy metals are pretty important for healthy body function!
But as you were probably expecting there’s a dark side to heavy metals, including the beneficial ones if they accumulate in too high a concentration in your body.
Even worse, there are some heavy metals that serve no positive benefit at all, and are dangerous even in very small quantities…
Negative Biological Effects of Heavy Metals
Heavy metal buildup in the body can cause all kinds of horrible health effects and diseases, both short- and long-term. All of the beneficial heavy metals listed above, if they are allowed to build up excessively in your body, can be just as bad as the toxic ones.
Some of the metals listed below are well-known contaminants that many municipalities worry about keeping out of their water supplies. Others, while seemingly more exotic, are just as harmful.
None of the heavy metals above should be in your body in any quantity, and taking in a goodly amount in a short time will make you terribly ill, causing nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting, vertigo and migraine.
But it is not necessary to ingest large quantities of any heavy metal all at once for them to adversely affect you.
Heavy metals are notorious for lingering in the body for years and years, and as they build up more and more, you become sicker and sicker, until one day you are riddled with disease.
These negative effects vary depending on the metal, your existing health, age and other factors, but they’re all awful and potentially lethal. Ingesting too much of any one heavy metal may result in the following:
- Memory Loss/Recall Problems
- Renal Failure
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Mental Abnormalities
- Bone Marrow Failure
Any one of those issues should be enough to get you to sit up and take notice of just how serious the problem of heavy metal contamination in drinking water is.
You should also take note that heavy metal contamination is a perennial problem, not just one present after disasters or during emergencies.
How Does Heavy Metal get into Drinking Water?
Heavy metal contamination is far more prevalent then you might be thinking. It is a shocking thing to consider, but heavy metals are present in water systems that have never been touched by human hands or otherwise affected by human habitation.
In fact, heavy metal counts have been going up over time even from naturally occurring deposits.
This is not to say that humanity does not significantly contribute to heavy metal contamination of water sources, because we do (and do so in all kinds of ways), but you won’t be safe from it just because you are sipping from the “purest”, remotest mountain stream.
The problem of heavy metal contamination seems like one that cannot be surmounted. It finds its way into aquifers and springs from naturally occurring mineral deposits in the ground.
It falls from the sky as rain contaminated by car exhaust. It is leached out of the very pipes present in towns and cities all across America and the world.
How on Earth are you supposed to get away from heavy metals in your water?! The answer is, you really can’t, and you just have to deal with them when and where they occur if they are occurring in levels that will bring about harmful health effects.
Top Contamination Sources
Below is a list of the biggest and most consistent sources of heavy metal contamination for drinking water supplies.
Dumping, Spills, Industrial Accidents
Chances are you have seen footage of the devastation that industrial waste, illegal dumping of chemicals and accidental spills can inflict on water supplies.
Whether these industrial and commercial byproducts are loosed into the ground, into streams, ponds or straight into lakes, the results are the same: skyrocketing amounts of heavy metals.
Even a single small incident of this nature can render entire water sources completely unsafe to drink without laborious and intricate clean up.
The burning of any kind of fossil fuel releases emissions that are full of heavy metal particles. These gases and vapors will rise high in the atmosphere, where they’ll be trapped by rain formation and subsequently fall back to the ground.
This rain, contaminated with heavy metals, easily contaminate any above ground and many below ground water sources.
Rain that is extraordinarily contaminated with heavy metals and other emission byproducts can form acid rain, which is even worse for water. Acid rain is typically encountered near major metropolitan hubs with lots of road traffic or industrial centers.
Heavy metals have been in the ground very literally since the beginning of time. These are not man-made contaminants!
Heavy metals occur all over the world in varying concentrations and when these mineral deposits are exposed or brought into contact with water sources by earthquake, drilling or erosion contamination is the result.
You won’t find a modern farm that does not use pesticides and other agricultural products to help keep their crops intact and healthy.
The vast majority of these chemicals are packed with heavy metals and readily absorbed by soil and groundwater.
Heavy rainfall can wash away recent applications of pesticides, carrying the resulting solution into above and below ground water supplies.
Some sources of heavy metal contamination are closer to home than others, literally. Old metal pipes, be they lead or copper, will steadily leach metal into the water supply bound for your taps.
This can also occur in public water utilities where the pipes and ducts are older metal. Other potential sources of heavy metal contamination are from plumbing sealants, brazing and other compounds.
If this gives you reason to worry, you should be. Typically heavy metals that are contaminating water supplies will give no indication that they are in there unless the concentration is substantial. In small amounts they are odorless, tasteless and colorless or very nearly so.
Even if you preemptively filter and treat your water for other contaminants, chances are you’ll be getting very little or even no heavy metals out of it. Most commercial emergency water filters do nothing against the majority of heavy metals.
What’s worse, even with testing you still can’t be certain what kind of contamination you are facing. Most over-the-counter in-home water tests will only check for the presence of copper, lead and iron.
As you saw on the list above, there are quite a few more heavy metals you should be worried about that just those three!
Heavy Metal Removal Methods
There are only a handful of methods for the removal of heavy metals from water that are highly effective. Many in-home and portable water filtration and purification methods will do nothing to remove heavy metals, or at least remove them in any appreciable quantity.
You’ll need to rely on more specialized methods detailed below.
1 – Cilantro
You got it right: bog-common cilantro. Before you dismiss it as the ravings of the All-natural Healing Essential Oil Frou-Frou Brigade, you should listen to the facts.
Studies have been conducted using cilantro on laboratory mice that were being force dosed with lead for a month’s time. A week into the experiment, the mice were also given cilantro concurrently with the lead dosing. The results at the end of a one-month trial were amazing:
Drastically lower lead build-up in the mice’s bodies than was expected, and even more amazing minimal kidney damage compared to what was expected with lead dosing of that magnitude.
As it turns out, cilantro contains a chelating agent that removes heavy metal from water naturally, and does so with a shocking amount of efficiency.
This was proven in Mexico City when scientists used cilantro to remove heavy metal from some of the most contaminated public water in the Americas.
Dried cilantro can also be placed into tea bags that are placed in a pitcher of water for a few minutes to suck out the heavy metals.Time Magazine
And mind you, this was cilantro used as is, not with some amazing agents refined from cilantro, not cilantro treated with all kinds of other chemicals and additives, I mean plain cilantro!
You can make use of cilantro’s wondrous abilities yourself by dunking a tea bag full of it into your suspect water or using one of those pitchers that has a separate chamber for the holding of fruit, herbs and things like that.
All you need to do is leave the cilantro in the water for about 24 hours and then remove it. It helps if you agitate the water periodically to help circulate it.
Also, if your water is dirty or cloudy in addition to being suspected of harboring heavy metals, make sure you pre-filter the water before employing the cilantro treatment.
Considering that cilantro grows very readily and bountifully in hot areas that get full sun, you can keep cilantro growing not just as a tasty additive for certain dishes but as an emergency way to remove heavy metal contamination from water.
If that doesn’t make it a prepping superstar I don’t know what will!
2 – Reverse Osmosis Filtration
We already know that most conventional filters just don’t have the chops to get heavy metal out of water, or at least get the majority of it out. If they do manage to do so, they’re only removing the easier ones to nab like copper, tin and lead.
That is certainly good, but it is no victory. If you want to ensure you are getting heavy metal out of your water supply using a filter, you’re going to need to pull out the big guns in the filter world: reverse osmosis filters.
Unlike the LifeStraw that you probably have in your bug-out bag, reverse osmosis filters are large, bulky and typically installed in a structure somewhere.
Portable models do exist, but will never rival the more traditional water filters we are accustomed to in size. Natural process by which reverse osmosis filters function is extremely technical and pretty boring.
Suffice it to say that the water will be filtered several times through increasingly fine filter systems before reaching the heart of the system: a filter so impossibly fine, so barely permeable that the pores of it measure only thousandths of micrometers in width.
Only a filter this fine has the capability to snag the smallest heavy metal particles which can still cause you harm.
Unfortunately these systems do have some drawbacks. They are expensive, maintenance intensive and tricky to keep operating at high efficiency.
Like I said, these things are complicated and you’re going to pay for it accordingly, both in funds and in time.
That being said, if you’re willing to make those investments, nothing is more effective at removing heavy metals from water on a mass scale.
3 – Distillation (Recommended)
Distillation is a method of water purification well known to most preppers.
Instead of the arcane trickery of cilantro or the brute force filtration method of reverse osmosis, distillation makes physics our ally in removing the heavy metal from water, or rather, removing water from the heavy metals!
Distillation works by turning the water to steam, and evacuating it from a vessel leaving all the contaminants previously in it behind.
Distillation is common in industrial and laboratory settings where pure water is needed for controlled experiments and conditions.
You can definitely replicate these results at home with a very minimalist lab setup, but you don’t need any fancy equipment to pull off distillation in the field, either. All you have to do is boil water, catch the steam and allow it to condense.
The trick is keeping the water just at boiling temperature, as going too far beyond this may also vaporize any contaminants in the water, allowing them to travel with it as steam. This is not an issue for heavy metals, but could be for other chemical contamination. Keep that in mind.
At home or in the field, you might also make use of distiller appliances which can fit on a countertop. All you have to do with these contraptions is fill them with suspect water, turn them on and let them do their work.
They work well, even if they are a little bit slow. As with the cilantro method above, if you were dealing with murky or highly suspicious water you should pre-filter it first before running it through the distillation process.
Heavy metal buildup in your body is a serious threat, and the easiest way heavy metal gets into your body is ingestion through food and most especially water.
The typical water filtration and purification methods you have learned so far in your prepping journey will not be enough to deal with heavy metal.
You’ll need to rely on one of the several specialized methods described above if you want to be truly certain you’re getting all contaminants out of your water. You should understand and try all of them so that you can employ them in an emergency.