Unsafe Water: Why and When Do You Need to Boil Water

Access to safe drinking water is one of the aspects of modern American life that most of us take for granted, but a clean water crisis this summer in Jackson, Mississippi has raised the specter of future boil water notices as the country’s water system infrastructure continues to age.

WBUR reported that residents in Jackson were boiling their drinking water after a breakdown at a local water treatment plant left the community without clean running water.

“For a month, residents of Jackson, Mississippi went without clean running water. The city's mayor says the problem's decades in the making. That makes Jackson a lesson for the entire country,” said WBUR. “Jackson is just one of many American communities relying on a century old water supply system.”

What Happened to Jackson’s Clean Water this Summer?

In August, ABC News reported, historic flooding in Mississippi damaged a major pump at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, the main water treatment facility for Jackson, leaving some 150,000 residents without clean water.

“Residents were forced to line up on streets and highways throughout the city to pick up water at distribution sites because of the shortage,” said ABC News.

What went wrong?

"This is due to decades, decades and decades, of possibly 30 years or more of deferred maintenance, a lack of capital improvements made to the system, a lack of a human capital, a workforce plan that accounted for the challenges that our water treatment facility suffers from," Jackson mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told "ABC News Prime.”

Help is on the way with the EPA announcing last December that Mississippi would receive nearly $75 million for water infrastructure projects, but the Jackson mayor estimated that the cost to fix the issue in his city alone is at least $1 billion.

"Even if somebody could wave a magic wand and Congress, by some miracle, were to pass a bill that would give Jackson $1 billion to completely overhaul its infrastructure for water and sewer, we'd be right back in this situation five, 10, 20 years down the road because we haven't fixed those underlying structural problems," Manny Teodoro, associate professor at the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told ABC News.

Making Water Safe in an Emergency

While crumbling water system infrastructure could certainly lead your area to have a lack of safe drinking water, there are other emergencies that can cause clean water issues.

“After an emergency such as a water main break, hurricane, or flood, your tap water may not be available or safe to use,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “In these situations, it’s important to know how to prevent illness from unsafe water.”

The CDC says after an emergency or disaster:

  • If you know or suspect your water is unsafe, don’t use that water to drink, wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash, and prepare food, wash your hands, make ice, or make baby formula.

  • Use bottled, boiled, or treated water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene.

  • Follow recommendations from your state, local, or tribal health department for boiling or treating water in your area.

  • Never use water from radiators or boilers that are part of your home heating system. Learn about places inside and outside of your home where you might find other sources of water that is safe to use.

The CDC says that if you do not have safe bottled water, you should boil your water to make it safe to drink.

“Boiling is the surest method to kill disease-causing germs, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites,” says the CDC, but notes that if the water has fuel, toxic chemicals, or radioactive materials in it, boiling or disinfecting the water will not make it safe.

Tips for Boiling Your Water to Make it Safe

The CDC says three main things to keep in mind when boiling your water to make it safe to use:

  1. Bring the clear water to a rolling boil for 1 minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for 3 minutes. Note: if the water is cloudy, first filter it through a clean cloth, paper towel, or coffee filter or allow it to settle. Then draw off the clear water and proceed to boil.
  2. Let the boiled water cool before using.
  3. Store the boiled water in clean sanitized containers with tight covers.

If you do not have the means to boil your water you can make small quantities of water safe to drink by using chemical disinfectant, such as unscented household chlorine bleach, iodine, or chlorine dioxide tablets.

“Disinfectants can kill most harmful or disease-causing viruses and bacteria, but most disinfectants* are not as effective as boiling for killing more resistant germs, such as the parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia,” says the CDC.

Bleach comes in different concentrations. Check the label of the bleach you are using to find its concentration before you start to disinfect water. Typically, unscented household liquid chlorine bleach in the United States will be between 5 percent and 9 percent sodium hypochlorite

Make sure to follow the instructions on the bleach label for disinfecting drinking water.

When a Boil Water Advisory is Issued

If your local health officials issue a boil water advisory, you should use bottled water or boil tap water.

“This is because a boil water advisory means your community’s water has, or could have, germs that can make you sick,” says the CDC.

Advisories may include information about preparing food, drinks, or ice; dishwashing; and hygiene, such as brushing teeth and bathing.

Boil water advisories usually include this advice:

  • Use bottled or boiled water for drinking, and to prepare and cook food.
  • If bottled water is not available, bring water to a full rolling boil for 1 minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for 3 minutes). After boiling, allow the water to cool before use.
  • Boil tap water even if it is filtered (for example, by a home water filter or a pitcher that filters water).
  • Do not use water from any appliance connected to your water line, such as ice and water from a refrigerator.
  • Breastfeeding is the best infant feeding option. If you formula feed your child, provide ready-to-use formula, if possible.

Other things to keep in mind, according to the CDC, during a boil water advisory:


  • In many cases, you can use tap water and soap to wash hands during a boil water advisory. Follow the guidance from your local public health officials.
  • Be sure to scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Then, rinse them well under running water.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. 

Bathing and showering

  • Be careful not to swallow any water when bathing or showering.
  • Use caution when bathing babies and young children. Consider giving them a sponge bath to reduce the chance of them swallowing water.

Brushing teeth

  • Brush teeth with boiled or bottled water. Do not use tap water that you have not boiled first.

Washing dishes

  • If possible, use disposable plates, cups, and utensils during a boil water advisory.
  • Household dishwashers generally are safe to use if:

o   The water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66°Celsius), or


o   The dishwater has a sanitizing cycle.


  • Sanitize all baby bottles.
  • To wash dishes by hand:

o   Wash and rinse the dishes as you normally would using hot water.


o   In a separate basin, add 1 teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach for each gallon of warm water.


o   Soak the rinsed dishes in the water for at least one minute.


o   Let the dishes air dry completely before using again.


  • It is safe to wash clothes as usual.


  • Clean washable toys and surfaces with:

o   Bottled water,


o   Boiled water, or


o   Water that has been disinfected with bleach.

Caring for pets 

  • Pets can get sick from some of the same germs as people or spread germs to people. Give pets bottled water or boiled water that has cooled.

Caring for your garden and houseplants

  • You can use tap water for household plants and gardens.

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