Safe Water?

The Hidden Hazard

We hope your visit to the desert will be enjoyable...and it will be if you avoid hazards encountered in the great out of doors. Two hidden hazards you should know about are diseases resulting from drinking untreated "natural" water. These diseases are giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, and their effects on you can be quite severe, and for some, life threatening.

River in Zion National Park

Do not be fooled by natural waters in lakes, streams and rivers that may be clear, cold, and free-running. They may look, smell, and taste good, and you may see wildlife drinking from them without hesitation. In spite of all that, Giardia lamblia cysts, and Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts that are carried in the feces of humans and animals may contaminate surface waters, all of which should be suspected of harboring these organisms.

Giardiasis--Symptoms and Treatment

While giardiasis can be incapacitating, it is not, as a rule, life threatening. Following ingestion by humans giardia attaches to the wall of the small intestine. Disease symptoms usually include chronic diarrhea, increased gas, abdominal cramps, bloating, and fatigue. Weight loss may occur from nausea and loss of appetite. These discomforts may first appear a few days to a few weeks after ingestion, and may last up to six weeks. Most people are unknowingly infected and have often returned home from vacations before the onset of symptoms. If not treated, the symptoms may resolve on their own, only to recur intermittently over a period of many months. With proper diagnosis, giardiasis is curable with medication prescribed by a physician.

Cryptosporidiosis--Symptoms and Treatment

Cryptosporidiosis can be incapacitating for those with healthy immune systems, but life threatening for those with compromised immune systems including AIDS patients, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, transplant patients using immuno-suppressive medication, persons with viral illnesses such as chicken pox or measles, the very young, and the elderly. Disease symptoms usually include watery and profuse diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and less frequently, fever, headache, and vomiting. Symptoms may appear a few days to a few weeks after ingestion, and may subside and then recur for several weeks. There is no safe or effective treatment for cryptosporidiosis. Persons with healthy immune systems improve without medication. Those with compromised immune systems may develop a severe, long-lasting infection, with diarrhea, that persists for several weeks to months, or even years. If you have any of these symptoms and drank untreated water, you should suspect either giardiasis or cryptosporidiosis and so inform your doctor.

Protect Yourself

There are few ways for you to treat raw water to make it safe to drink. The most certain treatment to destroy giardia and cryptosporidium is to bring water to a rolling boil for one minute. (Add an additional minute for each 1,000 feet above sea level.) Boiling will also destroy other organisms causing waterborne disease.

A far less reliable treatment is the use of portable water filters and disinfection. Some claim to remove Giardia lamblia cysts and Cryptosporidium oocysts, but test protocols are not uniform in the industry and many have not been tested in unbiased laboratories. Purchase only from reputable dealers, and check product literature to ensure that the filter is labeled according to filter manufacturing standards as at least an "Absolute" 1 micron filter, or one labeled as meeting American National Standards Institute (ANSI/NSF) (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) International Standard #53 for "Cyst Removal". No other filters are reliable for removing Giardia and Cryptosporidium. For disinfection add 8 drops of bleach or 20 drops of tincture of iodine per gallon of water and let stand for 30 minutes.

For short trips, take a supply of water from home or from another treated domestic source. Due to the lack of labeling and manufacturing standards, there is no assurance that bottled water is safer than public drinking water.

Protect Others

Giardia can be readily transmitted between humans and animals, and feces (human or animal waste) can contain these organisms. Human waste should be buried 8 inches deep and at least 100 feet away from natural waters.

Practice good personal hygiene. Wash hands before handling food, eating, and using the toilet.


Health Information, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services.
If you have any questions, please contact the Center for Disease Control at 800-CDC-INFO.


Survival Off-Road Driving

What to do when you get lost, stuck, or if your car break down.

Stay with your vehicle or otherwise make yourself visible.
Keep calm -- don't panic and don't waste time on the 'if' word ('If only I hadn't done that.') It's wasted effort, you did it, or it happened, whatever. Spend your time constructively.

Think through your options. Take stock of your supplies and situation.

Stay put, unless you have a clear and specific destination. If you choose to hike out, avoid walking during the heat of the day; morning and evening walking is better for conserving your body's moisture. If you must leave your vehicle, leave a note telling the direction of your travel, your destination, and the date and time you left. What can happen if you leave your car.

Seek shelter from the elements, but try to make yourself visible (with smoke or a signal fire, or a brightly colored tarp).

More information on desert driving.

Related DesertUSA Pages

Desert Survival Primer
How to Turn Your Smartphone into a Survival Tool
Successful Search & Rescue Missions with happy endings
How to Keep Ice Cold in the Desert
Make your own Survival Kit
Combating the Desert Heat: Heat Acclimation



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