Water, Water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Part 1

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March 2, 2009

It is a beautiful day in the spring, and you are out hiking and gotten all hot, tired and thirsty.  Suddenly you come upon a sparkling, clear and cold stream.  It certainly looks clean, and the water is so nice and cold.  So you take your water bottle out of your pack, fill it up, and enjoy a long, cold drink.  Much, much refreshed you finish your hike.  How many of us have done this when you have gone out for a hike on a beautiful day?  I have, and I am sure most of you have taken a drink from a wilderness stream and enjoyed it and gotten away with it.  While most of the time you can get away with it, sometimes the ending changes to something, like this:

A few  days later, you suddenly start to burp foul sulfur-smelling gas.  Then you suddenly feel like you have to go to the bathroom, and, as you run for it, you have what can kindly be described as “Explosive Diarrhea.”  As the hours pass and the s*** continues to hit the fan, you become weaker and weaker until, finally dehydrated, you go to the hospital.

What happened to you?  Most likely you have fallen prey to the microorganism called Giardia Lamblia otherwise known as Giardia or Beaver Fever.
Hard to belief that something this small and innocent looking could send almost 30% of the people that ingest it seeking medical treatment.  While another 30 to 50% become silent carriers.  Today in America, some of infected animal populations include cows, sheep, deer and, of course, the animal that gives it one of its names the beaver!

Giardia Lamblia

So many of the areas that we love to camp in like National and State forests, National and State Parks, BLM land, and  other areas can hold infected animal populations.  It is usually passed to humans either by contact with the animals’ feces or ingestion of water contaminated by the feces.  It can also be contracted by contact with the human carriers who have poor hygiene.

Now most important:  What can you do to NOT get this?  That is what I want to cover today.  Most water contaminates that we think of can be fixed by the water purification tablets you can find in the sporting goods department of your local Big Box Store, but not Giardia.  It can’t even be killed by the old Boy Scout trick of adding a few drops of chlorox to your water. It is even resistant to the ionization light purifiers.  The parasite is usually transmitted by ingestion of cysts, think of them as “Eggs,” that protect the parasite until the stomach acids break down the “shell” wall.  The way to kill the cysts is to “break” the egg by boiling the water for 10 minutes.  Or the cysts can be filtered out by any filter that stops anything larger than 1 micrometer in size.  Most stores that cater to backpackers and other outdoorsman will have these filters and will describe them as reverse osmosis or micro pore filters.  I am sure that, even if I haven’t seen them, the fact that they are becoming smaller and cheaper, they will soon be on the shelves of the local Walmart if they aren’t already.

Moral of the story?  Well, in today’s world you can’t be too safe and your water source can be contaminated even if it looks clean and clear.  So take care of you and yours and make sure your water is safe.  Otherwise you might want to stock up on reading material for your bathroom!

Your Obedient Servant,

Gary Smith, Jr.

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  3. Francis X. Schilling

    Giardia is no simple “Aztec two-step” – it’s a whole other degree of affliction entirely. You may have similar symptoms, but they will *not* clear up in 24 or 48 hours. Those are almost always E. coli infestations and do not persist. In our case it was weeks of misery. We couldn’t even get treated in the US outside of a hospital as the latest drug had not been FDA approved for prescription sale at the time. The poster above who mentioned the poison you need to ingest to kill them is absolutely correct. It is *very* bad and I would *never* want to cross paths with those *&%^! bugs again!

  4. GMAs

    So that is what I had… hmmm never knew the name… we used to call it asteck two step.

    Thanks for the info.

  5. tomyork

    I had giarida from drinking ice tea in a restaurant in Colorado–no fun!

  6. A long time ago I had a friend who was a parasitologist, as was her husband. Her little boy got Giarida. They were very excited and got out her husbands fancy electron microscope, because apparently it’s not common to be able to see the critters in their active state. Lab samples are almost alway in the cyst stage. However, she also told me what it takes to cure an infestation — it’s almost worse than the disease. Basically, you have to take poison strong enough to kill the critters, but not (hopefully) strong enough to kill you, but it’s a fine line… However, if left to itself it CAN be fatal to some people by causing dehydration, so medical help is necessary.

  7. hockeyguy

    I camp in Ontario mostly but have camped in British Columbia and Alberta and anywhere you go this is a chance that you take unless you do what you have to do. My first choice would be to get water purification/filtration systems to remove what can hurt you now and later.
    I have been sick from vacationing in the south and it is nasty and lasts for much longer than you would like….

  8. Rick

    OK, SO you have the Poops…….You have the bug…….Now what? What kills it?

  9. Evie

    Ummmmm Wow off to the store we go to get these filter bottles. Thanks for the article and it’s opened my eyes….

  10. Leon Eaves

    A little over 50 years ago I was working in the Texas oil fields riding on a truck in 100+ heat. We came to a stream that was all rocky with a cement roadway to ford. The water was perfectly clear and running shallow, but swiftly. The whole bailed out of the truck to sample mthe water. Before any of us drank the water one of the crew noticed that a few hundred feet upstream was a dead bloated cow in a deeper part of the stream washed up against the rocks, just a bobbin in the current. Don’t trust your eyes.