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Drinking water whilst on holiday

Waterborne illnesses are common in many parts of the world. Advice on safe drinking.   2012-10-17

Water is our most precious resource, it is essential for the maintenance and survival of human life. Whereas hunger strikers have been documented to have survived for up to 40 days without food, an adult in normal surroundings can only survive for about a week without any water. A child left in a locked car in the sun can dehydrate, overheat and die in a space of a few hours.

Thankfully such extremes are rare but in no way does this reduce the urgency of our need for water. For us who live in the Western world, safe potable water is as far away as the kitchen tap but for travellers to developing and under developed countries lack of potable water or drinking contaminated water can turn a holiday or business trip into a nightmare.

Waterborne illnesses are common in parts of the world where there is poor sanitation and hygiene. The World Health Organization (‘WHO’) estimates that 20% to 50% of travellers suffer at some point from Traveller’s Diarrhoea (‘TD’). According to the WHO, 80% of TD cases are caused by bacteria such as E.coli, Shigella and Salmonella, viruses such as rotavirus, protozoa such as giardia and cryptosporidium and by chemical pollutants.

In many cases the local people might drink local tap water with no ill effects but a traveller might get sick. The reason for this is that the immune system of the local people have adapted to the water supply whereas that of travellers has not. So what steps should be taken by travellers who desire to avoid waterborne illnesses? The following is the advice of the WHO:

  • Boil all water

The most effective way of eliminating all disease carrying pathogens from your drinking water is to bring the water to a rolling boil and to let it cool down on its own. Use boiled water to brush your teeth, to make ice, to drink, including to dilute soft drinks, and to cook.

  • Soft drinks & alcoholic beverages

Carbonated soft drinks, beer, wines and other undiluted alcoholic beverages are usually safe.

  • Salads

Although you might think ‘what could possibly be dangerous about having a salad’, it would be best to avoid all uncooked foods including salads. The reason for this is that the vegetables might be washed in local water. Wash all fruit with boiled water.

  • Disinfection

To boil your drinking water is always the preferred option but if this is not possible you can disinfect clear, non-turbid water by using chemical disinfection such as chlorine and iodine. These are effective in offering protection against Giardia but may not be as effective in eliminating more resistant organisms. You should keep in mind that chemical disinfection is not recommended for long term use, especially by pregnant women and people with a history of thyroid problems.

  • Portable filtering device

Portable filtering devices such as ceramic filters and carbon filters can be used to remove protozoa and some types of bacteria. It is important that you select a filter with pore size the size of 1 micron or less. The World Health Organisation explain that a portable filtering device that is based on the process of reverse osmosis and ultrafilter can remove almost all pathogens.

  • Bottled water

Drink bottled water from well known brands that are certified by a reliable body. If the bottled water has an unusual smell or taste, don’t assume that it is OK, don’t drink it. It was recently reported that a staff member of the US embassy in Burundi had fallen ill after drinking water from a well known local brand. Apparently, when opened, the bottles gave off a strong smell of petrol.

Bottled water safety

There are claims that to freeze or reuse plastic bottles, to microwave food in plastic containers or to leave plastic bottles for a long time in the sun can release carcinogens into our food or water. Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Care both say that there is no truth in these claims. Cancer Research UK points out that legislation in the UK ensures that any material that comes into contact with food is tested and certified to be safe, before it is released into the market.

As regards the use of plastic or cling film in a microwave oven the Food Standards Agency advises consumers that by heating any plastic you run a risk of chemicals going into the food. To avoid this happening, make sure that the cling film does not touch the food. When using any plastic in a microwave, follow the instructions in the packaging and ensuring that you use the product correctly. Not all plastic containers or cling film are suitable for heating.


This article is meant to provide a general overview on the steps that a traveller can take to ensure the safety of his drinking water. If you are planning to travel to a location where the water may not be safe to drink, make sure that you go prepared for there is nothing more unpleasant than to suffer from TD when away from home.