Hardly week goes by without someone bringing us a bottle fo their tank water. “It’s straight out of the sky!” they say. “It has to be good, right?
“Beautiful, pure rainwater: God’s perfect gift of hydration from the heavens, right?”
Sorry folks. No.
And to illustrate this I’ll tell you a quick story. Many years ago I was a pro fisherman, fishing for Snapper nine miles off Cape Byron. It was a grand adventure.. but the price of fish meant we worked very, very hard. Some days we’d come back with fish to the gunnels. Other days we’d be lucky to get enough for dinner. So you can imagine that those good days were economically precious.
Imagine for a minute..
hundreds of beautiful fresh caught fish strewn over the decks of our eighteen footer. They couldn’t be more fresh. Imagine now, as we embark on our hour-long journey home… a huge black cloud and torrential rain. God’s heavenly bounty, right? Wrong. In that one hour the ‘pure rainwater’ contaminated our fish to such a degree we had to take them home and bury them.
If you ask an expert like Michael Oelgemoeller, water treatment researcher from James Cook University, he’ll tell you that untreated rainwater is considered not safe for human consumption.
And it gets worse as it is collected on your roof. There’s the bacteria that thrive in water tank, and there’s toxic metal traces in roof runoff. Add to that the extreme acidity of the water samples we’ve tested from the newer plastic water tanks: rainwater should be your last choice.
“There is this public view that rainwater is clean and yummy and tasty but it really depends on how you collect it,” said Professor Michael.
“I wouldn’t drink it for sure. It’s recommended for dishwashers, for toilets, for gardening but drinking is a different story.”
Flinders University health researcher Dr. Kirstin Ross recently conducted a review of tank water around Adelaide. She said that although there was no evidence of increased gastrointestinal illness as a result of using rainwater tanks for drinking water, the microbes are present in the water.
.. Which is all very not-nice if you have no alternative, as is the case with so many Country dwellers. Let’s share what we’ve observed over 18 years and what we recommend.
What’s in your tank?
Rainwater’s major ‘baddies’ are microorganisms, including as bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, and traces of toxic metals that can come from air pollution or, less commonly, from roofing materials. We had one customer who had his tank water analysed due to the taste. He discovered jet fuel. There are many, many similarly amazing stories.
“When we inspect the rainwater, you do find all sorts of nasties in it,” said Magnus Moglia, a CSIRO researcher who recently completed a study of rainwater tank safety in Melbourne.
The main bacteria that can be found in many rainwater tanks is Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is transmitted via faeces. It’s a significant cause of gastrointestinal illness including vomiting and diarrhoea. Birds, possums and other animals do poo. You can’t prevent their natural functions even if they are vertically above your roof at the time. In our region huge colonies of flying foxes pass over homes every night on the way to their feeding grounds. One group can easily exceed five thousand. So the chances of missing your roof is pretty slim. With the faeces come the bacteria, and especially in regions like our where it;s warmer, the bacteria in the faeces think they’ve landed in Heaven.
Now.. although all this is true, there’s a surprisingly small number of reported cases of sickness> Most people don’t connect the casue and the effect.
“There’s not much data about people getting sick from drinking rainwater. Most people have a couple of bad days and then they bounce back,” Professor Michael said.
“But we shouldn’t forget that dehydration from diarrhoea is the number one killer in the undeveloped world.”
Filter, boil or both?
Under lab conditions filtration systems are able to remove E. coli, Dr Ross said, but filters in homes often became a breeding ground for the bacteria. Sadly, the majority of people buy cheap when they buy water filters, neglecting to bother researching the possibility of bacteria actually finding a new home in the filter.
“Filtering might be enough if they use a well-maintained filter. But the small dataset that we have, seemed to indicate that microbes are getting through as they seem to be growing on the filter itself.”
Dr Ross’s research has examined levels of zinc, lead, chromium, copper and cadmium in South Australian water tanks.
These findings concurred with similar published studies from around Australia, she said.
Arsenic and nickel have also been found in other Australian studies.
“Filtration will remove some of these metals, but not all – we did a study on water that we artificially contaminated with bushfire ash, to see what recommendations should be made post-bushfire to landholders, and found that filters were good at removing zinc and copper but not chromium and arsenic,” Dr Ross said.
We have been aware of this for a long time – long before we sat down with our water engineers in California to design the filtration for our own design UltraStream. We’ve incorporated a very special patented media called KDF85, which has the ability to actually electrocute bacteria and neutralise heavy metals.. but at home, we go one step further.
You see, tank water is also high in sediment, and sediment is known in the industry as the ‘filter waster’. It’s like fine mud; not particularly dangerous – but it will fill your filter quickly, meaning new filters far more often. So we use a special prefilter designed specifically to halt sediment, with the ability to be soured with a kitchen scourer hundreds of times before it needs replacement. The sediment-free water, still containing possible toxins, then passes to the highly sophisticated and more expensive Ultrastream for advanced toxin reduction.So filter your water to remove metals, but if your roof has received a lot of ash from nearby fires, it might be worth getting your water tested to make sure poisonous metals aren’t getting through. So your have a low cost sediment removal and a long life toxin and heavy metals removal system.
Zzzz… Slap! Mosquitos.
The health problems of poorly maintained rainwater tanks don’t begin at the tap.
If mosquitoes can access the water in the tank it can become a breeding ground for the disease-spreading insects, said Dr Moglia, who was part of a research project that inspected 450 tanks across Melbourne.
“We found mosquitoes in quite a few of them. It’s equally as big of a problem in terms of health [as contaminated drinking water],” he said.
To guard your family against mozzies in your tank, cover the inlet with mesh and also ensure the outlet has a mesh cover or sealed pipe.
Check your mesh is in good condition. It takes just days of a gap for a colony of the little blighters to establish. A recent CSIRO study found more than 10 per cent of water tanks inspected had mesh that was in poor enough repair to let pests and vermin into the tank.
I’ve written previously about the danger of the brain eating amoeba – Naegleria Fowleri
This little critter is found in warm water, but luckily or not, it has to gain entry to the brain via the nose or mouth. The fatal cases reported happened with children playing with hoses in prolonged hot periods.
The environmental choice: Rainwater tanks
Ten years ago we had a very bad drought and even homeowners in the city were installing rainwater. Let’s face it, they do allow us to save water if we use them for those functions they are best suited to. Many people still say there’s no point having a rainwater tank if you have town water, but showering, flushing toilets and watering gardens with rainwater all help conserve town water supplies.
And there’s a bigger environmental benefit of more homes having rainwater tanks, especially in urban areas, according to Dr Moglia: reducing runoff into waterways.
“When the rain falls on a city, there’s so much of the surface that’s covered by roofs and concrete — it really changes the flow of the rainwater so you get flooding,” he said.
“It’s bad for humans and property but importantly you get creeks flooding and the environment really doesn’t like it. You get erosion in waterways.
“To protect the urban waterways you need to make sure you capture as much as you can of that rainfall.”
Ian: It’s important to get your ‘water plan’ right. Our team will ask the right questions to configure the best and best value water health systems for your particular location. This, we have found, is not an ‘off the shelf’ approach. There are many factors, including house size, water pressure, local minerals in the water, specific contaminants, size of garden and more.
There are significant savings you’ll make initially and long term with the correct configuration. That’s why we recommend calling us or going to our web page that helps you get clearer about your discussions – to help yourself and help us help you!
Blastocystis, Giardia, Cryptosporiduium, Naegleria Fowleri. The Water Nasties we all need to know about.
We are getting more and more questions these days about these four nasties in drinking water. Each of them are seriously nasty in their own way, ranging from extreme diarrhea to brain eating amoeba, so it’s good to be able to plan around the possibility of finding it in your water.
We don’t want to panic you, and we must stress that if you are drinking municipal chlorinated water you are way ahead of people in the country.
One of the most common human parasites in the world, It has a global distribution.
It’s the most common parasitic infection in the USA, where it infected approximately one person in four of the total population during year 2000.Less developed areas had 100% infection rates.
High rates of infection are found in individuals in developed countries who work with animals.
Although the role of Blastocystis hominis in human disease is controversial, a systematic survey of research studies conducted by 11 infectious disease specialists from nine countries, found that over 95% of papers published in the last 10 years identified it as causing illness in healthy individuals.
We estimate that at least 1 billion people worldwide are cothout knowing and without feeling sick. Blastocystis may colonise the intestine for a long time (i.e. months or years).
So.. as you can see, Blasto is not really just a waterborne parasite.
How Blastocystis is transmitted is not known for certain, although the number of people infected seems to increase in areas where sanitation and personal hygiene is not adequate. Studies have suggested that risk of infection may increase through:
- ingesting contaminated food or water,
- exposure to a day care environment, or
- exposure to animals.
How can I prevent infection with Blastocystis?
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before handling food.
- Teach children the importance of washing hands to prevent infection.
- Avoid water or food that may be contaminated.
- Wash and peel all raw vegetables and fruits before eating.
- When traveling in countries where the water supply may be unsafe, avoid drinking unboiled tap water and avoid uncooked foods washed with unboiled tap water.
Giardia lives inside the intestines of infected humans or other animals.
Infection is through ingesting or coming into contact with contaminated food, soil, or water. The Giardia parasite originates from contaminated items and surfaces that have been tainted by the feces of an infected carrier. So when I spent time exploring the feed creeks of our local water supply and discovered two young women excreting in the creek, I had good reason to conclude that our reservoir has Giardia.
Symptoms of Giardia may begin 2 days after infection, include violent diarrhea, excess gas, stomach or abdominal cramps, upset stomach, and nausea. Resulting dehydration and nutritional loss may need immediate treatment. Typical infection within an individual can be slight, resolve without treatment, and last between 2–6 weeks, although it can sometimes last longer and/or be more severe. Coexistence with the parasite is possible (symptoms fade), but you can remain a carrier and transmit it to others.
Giardia causes a disease called Giardiasis, which causes the villi of the small intestine to atrophy and flatten, resulting in malabsorption in the intestine. Lactose intolerance can persist after the eradication of Giardia from the digestive tract.
Person-to-person transmission accounts for the majority of Giardia infections and is usually associated with poor hygiene and sanitation. Giardia is found on the surface of the ground, in the soil, in undercooked foods, and water along with improper cleaning of fecal material from the hands after handling infected feces. Water-borne transmission is associated with the ingestion of contaminated water. In the U.S., outbreaks typically occur in small water systems using inadequately treated surface water. Venereal transmission happens through fecal-oral contamination. Additionally, diaper changing and inadequate hand washing are risk factors for transmission from infected children. Lastly, food-borne epidemics of Giardia have developed through the contamination of food by infected food-handlers.
The CDC recommends hand-washing and avoiding potentially contaminated food and untreated water.
How can I remove Giardia from my drinking water?
To kill or inactivate Giardia, bring your water to a rolling boil for one minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for three minutes) Water should then be allowed to cool, stored in a clean sanitized container with a tight cover, and refrigerated.
An alternative to boiling water is using a point-of-use filter. Not all home water filters remove Giardia. Filters that are designed to remove the parasite should have one of the following labels:
- Reverse osmosis,
- Absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller.
Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are commonly known as “Crypto.”
There are many species of Cryptosporidium that infect animals, some of which also infect humans. The parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time and makes it very tolerant to chlorine disinfection.
While this parasite can be spread in several different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common way to spread the parasite. Cryptosporidium is a leading cause of waterborne disease among humans in the United States and Australia.
Many but not all home water filters remove Cryptosporidium. Some filter designs are more suitable for removal of Cryptosporidium than others. Reverse osmosis filters do protect against Cryptosporidium. Some other types of filters that function by micro-straining also work. Look for a filter that has a pore size of 1 micron or less. This will remove microbes 1 micron or greater in diameter (Cryptosporidium, Giardia).
This little nasty gained press this year when a baby Australian died of it.
Naegleria fowleri (commonly referred to as the “brain-eating amoeba” or “brain-eating ameba”), is a free-living microscopic ameba*, (single-celled living organism). It can cause a rare and devastating infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). The ameba is commonly found in warm freshwater (e.g. lakes, rivers, and hot springs) and soil. Naegleria fowleri usually infects people when contaminated water enters the body through the nose. Once the ameba enters the nose, it travels to the brain where it causes PAM, which is usually fatal. Infection typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, like lakes and rivers.
The largest amount of experience in managing Naegleria fowleri-contaminated water supplies is in Australia, which had multiple deaths in four states during the 1970s and 1980s that were linked to swimming or having other nasal exposure to contaminated drinking water. The infections were linked to piping drinking water overland, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers, that resulted in the water being heated and having low disinfectant levels. These conditions allowed the water and pipes to become colonized by Naegleria fowleri. Several water systems in the states of Western Australia and South Australia continue to monitor regularly for Naegleria fowleri colonization in drinking water distribution systems . Experience gained in managing Naegleria fowleri contamination of specific water systems has prevented further infections in Australia since that time.
You cannot get infected from swallowing water contaminated with Naegleria.