Preppers are always worried about cleansing and purifying their water, and they should be: bacteria, viruses, amoebas, prions, dirt, debris and minerals are all present in found water supplies, and you definitely don’t want them in your body.
Any of them can make you gravely sick, potentially even kill you. You can’t afford the first one during a survival situation and you definitely don’t want to come down with a bad case of the latter, if you take my meaning.
But there’s another contaminant often present in found water, and even water that comes out of your faucet at home, that most preppers aren’t worried about. Believe me, they should be.
I’m talking about heavy metals. These dangerous and sometimes deadly elemental contaminants are difficult to detect, persistent, and omnipresent. You can find them in mountain streams, well water or in the middle of the city.
And I have even more bad news: that high-end portable water filter you have in your BOB won’t remove them…
Preppers are going to need to learn a few new tricks if they want to successfully remove heavy metals from their drinking water, at home or in the field.
This article will provide you with three methods proven to work and a lot more info about the insidious threat of heavy metal contamination.
Heavy Metals in the Body
Heavy metals are pretty much exactly what they sound like. They are all more or less common elements that are naturally occurring on Earth.
The specific physical characteristics of heavy metals are not particularly important for our discussion today, suffice to say you don’t want them inside your body in any major concentration.
While they are very dense, many times denser than water, they are still water soluble and even when they are measured in sizes down to the micrometer they can still build up in the body and cause harm.
Many heavy metals are toxic in any amount, and even ones that we need in our bodies as part of normal bodily processes and functions are toxic if they are present in amounts exceeding what the body requires.
Heavy metals can make you terribly ill fast and cause all kinds of diseases, both short and long-term. On the other hand, some of them are essential for good health in the right amounts.
You’ve probably heard of a couple of them, calcium being by far the most common and necessary for the growth and repair of your bones as well as your teeth. Zinc is another heavy metal that your body requires, even if it does not need much.
All in all, heavy metals perform many important functions throughout your body, including blood sugar stabilization, muscular contractions, blood clotting functions, bone growth, hormone management and electrolyte transport. Hey, it sounds like they aren’t so bad!
I wouldn’t go that far, reader. In sufficient quantities any of the heavy metals, even the beneficial ones, can have deleterious effects on your health. Some heavy metals are toxic in any amount, and can even kill you in small doses.
To make matters even worse, many heavy metals are infamous for being absorbed in the body with great rapidity, and once they’re in there, they can be very difficult to get rid of. A partial list of harmful heavy metals is below.
Note that some of them are indeed beneficial in trace amounts, but if you are drinking them regularly in your water supply they will quickly become problematic:
Unless present in extreme concentrations, most of these heavy metals will not significantly alter the taste or appearance of water, especially water that is already a little murky. That means you can go right on drinking it and never know about the toxins you were putting in your body.
Biological Effects of Heavy Metal Buildup
I hope you understand by now that heavy metals are very serious business when we are talking about them building up in your body. One of the severest risks presented by heavy metals is slow intake overtime. You gradually feel worse, and worse, and worse until you wake up one day eaten up with disease.
That being said, it is not impossible to ingest a very high dose of heavy metals in a very short period of time. This will poison you directly, and may result in any of the following:
- Stomach cramping
The really bad stuff waits further down the line. If heavy metals build up in your body slowly for a long time it can result in all kinds of diseases:
- Memory loss / Amnesia
- Renal failure
- Brain and Nervous System issues
- Cardiovascular disease
- Bone marrow decay
Any of these problems are reason enough to get really serious about getting heavy metal out of your drinking water, even if there is not a major crisis going on. This is one of those problems that if you defer finding a solution for it you may pay a severe penalty later on in life.
How Does Heavy Metal Get In Your Water?
I’m afraid there is no good news here: heavy metal contamination is extremely common in the United States and throughout the world. Even worse, it does not only result from man-made catastrophes and negligence.
Heavy metal contamination can occur completely naturally with no intervention from humanity. They are present in the ground and can leach into water supplies in many ways
That is bad enough, but as you probably expected, humans are indeed responsible for a significant amount of heavy metal contamination in our drinking water, both above- and below- ground sources.
If there is a particularly bad incident the water can be contaminated to very dangerous levels in no time. That usually doesn’t happen with natural occurrences.
Below is a short list of the most common contamination vectors for heavy metals:
This is one of the most extreme sources by a huge margin. Any factory or plant that deliberately dumps or accidentally spills waste or chemical products risks contaminating water sources above or below ground.
Some especially terrible accidents, and for that matter incredibly nefarious people, have contaminated rivers, streams and lakes.
All it takes is a relatively small spill of industrial waste to completely contaminate and render undrinkable a water supply that has existed for thousands of years.
Exhaust from internal combustion engines contains quite a few heavy metals, and those heavy metals can exist as they are in microscopic amounts. It’s not hard to see how these particles will float up into the atmosphere along with the exhaust from an engine.
Once they are up there, they will usually be trapped in rain that condenses in clouds and falls right back to earth. Once they soak into the ground, or land in above ground water supplies, heavy metal levels start to rise.
This source of contamination is especially prevalent around areas with poor air quality controls or dense populations. More engines running and more foundries burning equals more heavy metal getting into the water supply over time.
Pesticides are a major source of contamination for groundwater, far worse than most people give it credit for.
While necessary to support farming on the industrial level improper application and a lack of care in preventing runoff means pesticides and other assorted chemicals full of heavy metals make their way in increasing numbers every year to above ground water supplies.
This is kind of a double whammy: when fields containing crops flood or are soaked by major downpours pesticides left in the soil can float to the top and be carried away by running water until they inevitably rejoin a source above or below ground, further contaminating it.
It is a raw deal; we don’t have to do anything wrong and heavy metals will still get into our water supply. They have been getting into water since the beginning, I suppose, so we just have to deal with it.
Earthquakes, tectonic movement, wind and water erosion and all sorts of other natural phenomena can result in deposits of soil and minerals containing heavy metals making their way into aquifers and sometimes above-ground sources.
Every once in a while, two previously separated water sources will meet and join. If one of them was previously contaminated the resulting integration will mean the resulting single source is spoiled.
Heavy metals come right out of our pipes, especially old metal (lead, copper) pipes. Even if your home or business has newer PVC pipes, common plumbing materials will often leach heavy metals into the water slowly over time. The local water destined to come out of your faucet can become contaminated with no other interference.
DIY testing for heavy metals from any source is something of a blind business. Home testers are not particularly accurate and usually only test for a small selection of the most common heavy metals that would be found in water.
One potential option if you get city or municipal water is to contact your water supplier, and ask them for a report on contaminants and metals found in their water. They’re required by law to test annually.
Aside from that, the only way to ensure accuracy when testing your water is to collect a sample and send it away to a proper lab for testing and analysis. Obviously this will not be an option or much help if you’re worried about heavy metals in your water supply after a disaster.
No matter what the situation is, you need those metals out, and I mean gone. To do that, you’ll have to rely on one of a few proven methods for getting rid of heavy metals.
3 Heavy Metal Removal Methods
Most conventional filtration methods effective at removing pathogens and other physical matter are ineffective against heavy metal contamination because the average particulate size is so amazingly tiny. That nice LifeStraw or Berkey Water Filter you have in your bag or in your vehicle will not do the job!
You will need to rely on more specialized techniques and methods. The good news is a couple of them will be achievable for almost any prepper and the other is just sort of the ultimate form of water filter with a price tag to match. Read through the list below to see which one will work the best for you.
#1 – Cilantro
As it turns out, common cilantro has something of a miraculous property when it comes to purifying water: it can actually remove heavy metals from water! That is 100% true and laboratory tested. It might also help your body get rid of heavy metals that have built up in it over time.
Scientists discovered this in an early 2000’s study using lab mice. Unfortunately for the mice, they were being used in lead poisoning trials. The mice were given cilantro concurrently after starting a regimen of lead dosing that lasted for one month.
At the end of the experiment, the scientists checked the mice’s lead levels, and were very surprised to find them way below normal considering the amount of lead that the mice have been given.
Even their kidney function was way above the baseline considering what it should have been after such a punishing and sustained regimen of lead ingestion.
It turns out that cilantro contains a chelating agent that can bind and remove heavy metal particles. In the body, this allows them to be passed out with other wastes. In water the heavy metal will bind to the cilantro to be carried away.
This was not a one-time thing, either. A similar experiment using cilantro was performed in Mexico City in 2013, only this time the cilantro was used directly on the city’s water supply.
Once again, scientists were astonished to see the cilantro dramatically reduced heavy metals in all samples of water they tested it with. As amazing as this is already, it is even more incredible when you consider how filthy and metal contaminated Mexico City’s water is.
All you need to do to take advantage of cilantro’s incredible ability to remove heavy metals is grow your own or buy a fresh plant and then dry it. You can swirl the dried cilantro in suspect water, let it sit for 24 hours, and then strain or otherwise remove it.
Note that this process works best if the water has already been filtered by some other traditional method first; murky water with a lot of sediment mixed into it will impede this process.
This is a good thing to keep in mind, since cilantro will grow readily in most hot environments. You can take advantage of this even if you are bugging out!
#2 – Reverse Osmosis
Where most conventional water filters will fail to remove heavy metal, technologically advanced reverse osmosis filters will get it done. Reverse osmosis may be complicated to explain scientifically, but in layman’s terms it relies on a series of filters terminating in a special filter or two with impossibly tiny openings.
We are talking molecule sized, here. This special filter is small enough to capture the otherwise too-small-to-catch particles of metal present in water.
Sounds pretty amazing, right? They are, but they have some drawbacks. First, these filters are expensive and complicated. That means they require more upkeep and maintenance and are more costly to use over time than other filters.
These are typically installed in a house either as a whole-house filtration system or an under-sink unit. Portable versions are available, but may not be quite as efficient as larger ones.
But, warts and all, reverse osmosis is the current king of filtration systems, and they’re only getting better.
As far as you are concerned they are one of the only options that can reliably remove all, or nearly all, heavy metals from a water supply. If you are worried about heavy metals getting into your household water, these make a lot of sense.
#3 – Distillation
Distillation is a classic and nearly foolproof method of purifying water. Distillation is a process by which water is vaporized into steam before it is migrated to another container, condensing back in to water once it arrives.
During this process any contaminants are left behind; water vaporizes at a much lower temperature than anything that might be inside it.
The only trick is that the temperature needs to be maintained right at the vaporizing point of water- any hotter and you risk vaporizing whatever chemical or organic contaminants convenient!
Nonetheless, distillation is well understood and effective if a little slow. It can be field-improvised through a variety of means, set up using common laboratory equipment or purchased in appliance form to sit on your countertop or alongside your washer and dryer. There are even whole-house distillation systems!
If you’re unfamiliar with distillation procedures, it is best to get in some practice now using a variety of methods.
This is a valuable tool to add to your prepping toolbox, especially considering you may not have any other option in an austere environment or deep in the wilderness.
Even though it’s slow and you’ll have to wait a little while for your water, the ability to create truly pure water out of almost nothing is borderline miraculous.
Health effects from heavy metal contamination in drinking water are serious, and can make you severely ill for the short-term or the long-term.
Typical filtration and purification methods are broadly ineffective against heavy metal contaminants, so you’ll need to rely on specialized solutions. The three presented in this guide will cover most of your bases depending on your specific survival situation.