Backpack-able Water Purifiers – Are They Safe?

Recently a friend of ours bragged about his 2-week camping trip that allowed him to become an expert on portable water treatment. And here I am with a degree in Biology and 35 years experience, still learning about water. Boy, you can imagine how stupid I felt when I realized that instead of all that hard work I could have just gone camping for a couple weeks to become a water expert. D’uh.

All kidding aside, are these portable, outdoor-oriented water purification products really safe and effective? Well, yes and no. It all depends on the incoming water quality, what happens to the water after it is treated, and of course the medical/physical condition of the person drinking the water. In an earlier article, we learned that there are 4 basic types of water contaminants, Organic and Inorganic. Either may be dissolved or undissolved.

So let’s break it down. There are Four (4) basic types of outdoor drinking-water purifying products.

  1. Reverse Osmosis (RO) – The only technology that removes all four types of contaminants.RO is by far, the safest. However, it is prone to plugging up with silt and dirt in the feed water.
  2. Chemical Treatment – Uses Biocides and/or chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. Chemical Treatment kills bacteria and things like algae and fungi. However, after killing this stuff, unless you can decant the material off, you will drink the dead organisms. People can have allergic reactions (pyrogenic reaction) to these residual contaminants.
  3. Microfiltration – effective at removing bacteria and organics but will not remove heavy metals. Microfiltration is basically a sieve or filer that mechanically screens particles down as far as 0.01 microns, according to manufacturer advertisements. Most bacteria are filtered out by any pore size that is  o.2 microns or smaller.
  4. Activated Carbon – Removes odors, chlorine, and many organic chemicals. Activated Carbon filters are effective at removing chloramine and chlorine from the water. They also remove odor-causing organic contaminants. Carbon is often impregnated with silver particles which prevent subsequent bacterial re-growth.

There are two caveats to be aware of:

  • Only RO removes toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, aluminum, chromium, zinc, and nickel
  • Any water found in nature is not likely to have chlorine in it. So, even if you remove the bacteria, once you store or capture the water, it will immediately begin to degrade and allow bacteria and other living organisms to begin growing again.

I think it is far better to have some of these types of water filtration products in your backpack, but carrying a bit of chlorine in a dropper bottle to further sanitize and keep bacteria free the water that you have filtered for drinking. I have included links to some former articles on these exact topics.