How to cope with conflicting information and unpotable water.
What to do about unsafe water
You’re used to fresh, clean water coming out of a tap, but in many countries, they’re accustomed to other methods. You’ll find it to be less of a hassle than you imagine, especially if you already drink mostly bottled or filtered water at home. Your hotel, hostel, or apartment will probably offer a filter system, a bottled water dispenser, or disposable bottles of water, and you’ll find it readily available on the street as well.
Things to remember
- The water isn’t poisonous; don’t get overly anxious about avoiding it. You may get diarrhea or be sick, so take the risks seriously, but don’t flip out if a drop gets in your mouth
- Avoid raw, unpeeled foods; they’ve almost certainly been washed in the water and may harbor bacteria. Eat salads, salsas, and unpeeled fruits only in high-end restaurants and hotels frequented by tourists.
- Avoid ice unless it’s made with filtered water. Just ask, and politely decline ice that’s not made with purified water.
- Don’t brush your teeth with tap water. Bring your water bottle with you, or keep a cup filled with potable water by the sink.
- If you cook, wash your hands often (soap will get rid of the bacteria). Use tap water when it will be boiling for at least one minute (like cooking pasta) but choose bottled water or boiled water for simmering. Most kitchens will have a hot pot, which makes it easy to keep boiled water on hand for washing fruits and vegetables, cooking etc.
Alternatives to plastic
Disposable plastic bottles should be considered an emergency source for drinking water. Those bottles are an environmental horror story. In developing countries, there is often no system for managing waste. Plastic bags and bottles clog waterfalls, litter forests, and kill animals all over the world. BPAs in plastic are also a tremendous health hazard.
Stainless Steel Insulated Water Bottles
Now that even “BPA-free” plastics are turning out to be health hazards, stainless steel bottles are the best choice to protect your body and the environment. Double-wall construction gives you insulation (for cold water or hot tea/coffee) and prevents sweating. Here are some popular options, linked to Amazon for more information.
This handy little gadget has won the Time Magazine Invention of the Year award for good reason. It is a game-changer for travelers, backpackers, and people in developing countries. No chemicals, no moving parts to wear out, tiny, lightweight and easy to tuck into your pocket. The Lifestraw removes bacteria, particles, and parasites instantly. Dirty water goes in, drinkable water comes out. Read more about it on Amazon and consider carrying one when you travel, as a lifesaving backup method. It will keep you safe and minimize your environmental impact at the same time, and it’s priced right, too.
There’s also a Lifestraw water bottle, although so far it only comes in a plastic version.
Where can you drink the water?
Just the Flight offers a handy infographic that shows at a glance where to expect potable water, along with the costs of bottled water and beer. The information comes from CDC, Water.org, and other reliable, conservative sources.
The graphic indicates that you can drink the water all over the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. There are a few other pockets of potable water in well-developed countries like Singapore and Japan, but all of South America, Africa, Central America and most of Asia are on the don’t-drink list. Visit the infographic for details.
A second opinion
To confirm the information, visit the CDC website’s health information page for your destination. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the dangers listed on the CDC website, so go in knowing that ANY country you might want to visit will include a long list of warnings.
When in doubt, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Filtering your water won’t harm you. Sometimes bacteria in the water will make you sick even if the locals are able to drink it without a problem. People develop immunity to the bacteria in their home environments.
The longer you travel, the more you marvel at the fact that people back home are spraying their lawns and filling their toilet tanks with liquid gold; in much of the world, potable water must be bought, hauled, carried, stored. Don’t you wish we could load up tankers with it and ship it where it’s needed?