Heavy metal contamination of drinking water is a serious threat both pre- and post SHTF. These elemental contaminants can cause serious short and long-term health effects when they start to build up in the body, and almost all of them are readily ingested through drinking water.
To make matters even worse, there are seemingly dozens of possible contamination vectors for heavy metals. Right now, today, there are at least half a dozen in your own town.
Of great concern for preppers is the fact that many heavy metals will not be removed at all by common portable water filters that otherwise do a great job of removing biological and chemical contaminants.
Lots of folks worry about getting bugs and germs out of your water along with solid sediments, but very few have an answer for the heavy metal problem.
It is time to step your game up and get serious about clearing heavy metal from your sources of drinking water.
In this article you will learn a little bit more about the dangers that heavy metals pose and show you three ways to get them out of your drinking water.
Heavy Metals and You
These heavy metals have nothing to do with music, and furthermore are not something that is man-made contrary to popular belief. Heavy metals are elements found on the periodic table and all of them have densities that are at least five times heavier than water.
We can put our science glasses on, get a lot more detailed than this, and talk about how they are opaque, fusible, ductile and lustrous substances that conduct electricity and heat, but that is really not germane to the topic at hand.
All you need to know as a prepper is that excepting a handful of these heavy metals in very trace amounts they will all make you gravely ill and cause all kinds of long-lasting diseases.
In high enough concentrations, quite a few of them are lethal. As it turns out you really don’t want much metal in your body.
We do need some though, a little bit, as our bodies conduct electricity in their own way. Certain heavy metals are biologically necessary for proper nervous system function along with a host of other things:
- Fluid and electrolyte balancing
- Blood sugar stabilization
- Muscle contraction
- Blood clotting
- Energy generation and management
- Bone growth
- Enamel maintenance
- …and more
One heavy metal that everyone knows and is familiar with is calcium, which plays a vital role in the creation and maintenance of teeth and bones.
Sodium is another one we all know and enjoy, even if we shouldn’t! Sodium is most commonly encountered as table salt.
Other heavy metals that the body needs in very limited or even trace amounts include magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, iron, chromium and copper.
And lest you think you can start gobbling multivitamins and develop superpowers, all of the above essential heavy metals are dangerous or fatal in too-high concentrations inside the body.
The Bad Stuff
As I mentioned above not all heavy metals are important for good bodily function even in the tracest amounts. Some are well known for causing all kinds of disease both in the short-term and the long-term.
A few important necessary heavy metals are also somewhat notorious for building up too quickly in the body and becoming dangerous. Below are a few of the worst offenders you are likely to encounter in your drinking water or through other vectors:
A sharp intake of any of the above metals will poison you and induce nausea, vomiting, cramping, headache and vertigo. Even small amounts ingested over a long period of time can have dreadful health consequences.
These effects vary from metal to metal and may be less or more intense depending on the concentration, your existing health and your age. Should your body take up too much heavy metal you can expect the following:
- Bone marrow loss
- Memory problems
- Kidney failure
- Neurological malfunction and other issues
- Heart and blood vessel disease
- …and more.
Heavy metals are serious business if they are in your drinking water, and even if everything else in life is swells and there are no threats on any horizon you should be worried about ingesting them.
Sources of Contamination
Now we get to the really scary stuff, the part where I tell you how heavy metals get into the drinking water supply.
This is not a pretty picture. Bottom line up front, there’s almost no way in the modern civilized world to prevent a continuously climbing heavy metal count in our water supplies.
Even before the Industrial Age, heavy metals were present in the soil and have always been getting into water one way or the other. The problem seems inescapable:
- Lead Plumbing – This is a source of contamination that is closest to home, literally. Home and commercial plumbing pipes that are older and made from lead are the major culprit, but modern plumbing supplies like sealants, brazing compound and other materials contain heavy metals that can leach into water bound for consumer taps.
- Ground Source Contamination – All kinds of heavy metals are present in the ground. Remember, these are elements found on the periodic table, not man-made byproducts. By earthquake, by fissure, by drill or erosion heavy metals of all kinds will find their way into the natural aquifers and underground water sources. A recent investigation found excessive lead and other heavy metals present in over 2,000 water systems across the entirety of the United States.
- Pesticide Runoff – Modern farms use all kinds of additives and pesticides on crops to help them grow healthy and remain free of infestation. These chemicals are full of heavy metals and flow into the soil and downhill away from crops into above and below ground water sources. Rain may also inundate crops and soil freshly sprayed with chemical additives or pesticides, exacerbating the effect.
- Exhaust and Combustive Pollution – Emissions from factories and motor vehicle exhaust are absolutely chock-full of all kinds of heavy metals. These tiny particulates rise high into the air, where they are absorbed in the clouds and subsequently rain before falling back to the ground slowly and insidiously contaminating water sources all across the land. Above ground water sources are especially vulnerable to this form of contamination. Rain that is especially contaminated near major metropolises with poor air quality actually turns into acid rain, which is even more devastating for water quality.
- Industrial Dumping, Disposal and Spills – We have all seen the nightmare horror stories of factories and major corporations accidentally or deliberately dumping waste by-products for manufacturing processes in the streams, ponds and landfills. All of this waste contains extraordinarily high concentrations of heavy metals, and even a single spill or dumping incident can render an entire water system completely unsafe to drink.
That is quite the list of sources for possible contamination. Even worse to consider is the fact that most of these heavy metals will not betray their presence in water unless they are in very high concentrations.
Most often times they will be odorless, colorless and tasteless or nearly so. Testing for the presence of heavy metals in water is likewise difficult, with most home water test kits only detecting the “Big Three: copper, lead and iron.
The best way to check for heavy metals in drinking water during non-emergency times is to request your water suppliers published report on contaminants and inspect it.
If this is unavailable, or you just don’t trust it, your only option is to take a sample of water and send it to a lab for analysis. If you’re in an emergency situation without such facilities and options are unavailable, you must assume that any found water is contaminated with heavy metal.
Get the Lead (And All the Other Metals) Out!
You only have a few 100% effective options for getting heavy metals out of your water supply. The sad fact is that most commercial home and portable water filters are not effective at filtering out heavy metals, or at best have very low efficacy.
You’ll need to rely on a couple of specialized methods to ensure that all heavy metal is removed from your drinking water.
You’ll likely be familiar with a couple of these methods, but one of them I’ll bet will be a major surprise for you, and even more surprising since it is so portable and can be performed almost anywhere. I’ll save that method for last. Read on to learn more.
Method # 1 – Reverse Osmosis Filtration
As mentioned above most common water filtration systems, including activated carbon ones, will only remove a fraction of the potential heavy metals in the water supply, and typically only the ones that are easier to get out, like lead, tin and copper.
If you want to get the metal out, you’ll need to step up your filtration game, and the best way to do that is with a reverse osmosis filter.
These contraptions are typically large and bulky, and in homes are commonly installed beneath one sink. Only these have the chops to remove almost every single kind of metal that might be present in the water.
The process is highly technical, but in layman’s terms the reverse osmosis process uses an impossibly tiny filter, one with pores not even a thousandth of a micrometer in width to trap the contaminants at the atomic and molecular level.
That’s just the crown jewel of the system.
Before the water gets to that step it would have been filtered for sediment including rust, passed through a second filter to trap smaller particles of rust and minerals, pushed through an activated carbon filter to remove any organic contaminants including chlorine.
Then, it finally passes through a single or a two-stage reverse osmosis filter which is a composite membrane and incredibly delicate.
Higher-end models may include ultraviolet sterilization at the very end to nuke organic pathogens that escaped capture in the membrane.
As far as filters go, nothing beats a reverse osmosis filter, and the latest models make use of nanotechnology in order to make them even more ruthlessly efficient at removing contaminants.
These systems though are expensive, high-maintenance and fussy: One filter depends on chlorine to work. The next one is broken down by chlorine. And so on and so forth.
If you aren’t ready for high initial investment and expensive ongoing maintenance, perhaps pass on these systems.
Method #2 – Distillation
Distillation is a well-known and favored method by preppers for purifying water. If you need your water truly pure, accept no substitutes.
Distillation works by separating contaminants from the water by turning the water into steam and then condensing it in a separate container. Anything else in the water is left behind since it will have a lower boiling point than water.
The only trick is keeping water at its boiling temperature without going high enough to vaporize other contaminants. A little heat control will go a long way.
Distillation is frequently used in labs and industries where truly pure water (or any other solution) is required for success in an operation. But you don’t need access to a fancy laboratory and a bunch of eggheads to pull off your own distillation at home or in the field.
If you can boil water and catch the steam to allow it to condense, you can make distillation work as a purification method. A simple setup of beakers, tubes and burners that is suitable for distillation is put together easily by handy DIY types.
But you might not need to rely on field expedient methods in an emergency; household, countertop distillers are available and definitely work. All you need to do is pour water into the system and turn it on.
If you have power, these work great. The only disadvantage with this setup is it takes time for water to vaporize into steam and then condense in the separate catch container.
If you’re dealing with highly suspect water, it is always a good idea to pre-filter it first to take out everything that the filter can handle before distilling it.
Method #3 – Cilantro Treatment
You read that right: cilantro. Common, garden-variety cilantro. Believe it; the evidence is compelling. In 2001 a study was conducted using mice.
Laboratory mice had lead added to their water for a month. After the first week of lead dosing, they started giving the mice cilantro for the remainder of the month every single day.
Extensive testing was performed on the mice and the results were startling. The lead uptake levels in the mice were drastically lower than expected, and they showed very little damage to their kidneys, which is a chief problem that accompanies lead poisoning.
Scientists were left with the determination that cilantro itself is a sort of chelating agent that binds metal in the bloodstream, and allows it to be released from the body in waste.
Before you protest, this has been confirmed on an ad-hoc basis with humans. Not long ago, in 2013, scientists working in Mexico City performed experiments on local water supplies using cilantro and discovered that the cilantro actually removed lead from the water directly.
This is especially relevant because Mexico City has some of the nastiest and most metal-contaminated water in North America.
As it turns out, spraying chemicals on crops willy-nilly with no regard to where they go is a bad idea and you can make the problem even worse by dumping chemicals directly into your own water supply. Who knew?
The good news is it was cilantro all on its own, no processing, no formulas, no nothing that was effective at removing heavy metals, at least a significant fraction of them, from water directly.
You can make use of this yourself by taking cilantro, drying it, and adding it to a sachet like a tea bag. You can then place this sachet of cilantro in your suspect water source and leave it there for at least 24 hours.
Once that is done, remove the sachet, throw it away and enjoy your purified water. As an alternative, you can use one of those pitchers that has an internal chamber for the holding of fruit or other flavorings that allows the water to freely mingle around the cilantro.
As with the distillation method above, you get the best results if you pre filter the water before using the cilantro treatment.
Cilantro grows fast and easily in areas with full sun and high temperatures. Keep the soil well drained and moist, and you’ll be harvesting cilantro leaves in about 3 or 4 weeks. You’ll have more seeds ready for harvest in about 45 days.
Cilantro typically grows in great, big bushels so you have plenty of available for seasoning and for treating suspect water for heavy metals. Considering how renewable this resource is, it is an invaluable tool for preppers who want to go the extra mile in purifying their water.
Heavy metal contamination is a serious problem when it comes to your drinking water and it is not easily dealt with via conventional methods.
You’ll need to rely on advanced filtration, distillation or the innovative, organic cilantro treatment method to remove heavy metals from your drinking water.
Make sure you brush up on all three methods so you have more options to choose from in an emergency.