From Contaminated To Clean: How Water Purification Tablets Work

Many backpackers and campers use water purification tablets to purify water from freshwater sources. In this article, we reveal how water purification tablets work.

Darrell Smith
Water Purification Tablets Water Purification Tablets
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Water is essential, but you can only pack up so much of the stuff when you are on the go.

If you're far from civilization, you may have to rely on multiple methods to ensure you have enough clean water. And one of the best solutions is using water purification tablets.

What are water purification tablets? How do they work?

In this article, we'll help you sort out the science, purpose, and details you need to know about these clean-water helpers.

The Dangers of Unpurified Water

Imagine you're on a trail out in the woods. You aren't lost or in any major danger, but it has been a while since you were last in civilization and your water supplies are beginning to dwindle.

Despite the picturesque idealism of clean streams and flowing rivers, water in the great outdoors is still home to plenty of potential bacteria problems.

Plenty of the microbes in nature are harmless and occur in extremely small quantities. Others are not so benign. Bacteria like E.Coli, fecal coliforms, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium all can be lurking in an otherwise pure-looking stream.

These microbes can cause sickness and potentially even death, thanks in part to the weakening of the human immune system caused by modern civilization.

How Do You Use Water Purification Tablets?

Water purification tablets are a simple, modern-day miracle. You dissolve them in any container of water to break down and eliminate the hazardous contaminants.

They come in little sheets with small tabs you break off to add to your water.

Water purification tablets are for emergency use only. While they are necessary when clean, filtered water isn't available, continuous use of them can lead to another batch of issues. Plus, they can negatively affect the taste of your water.

Different Kinds of Water Purification Tablets

Water purification tablets have a combination of chemicals that help to disinfect the water, neutralize microorganisms that live within it, and even eliminate non-living contaminants such as radioactive iodine from nuclear disasters.

Coincidentally, one of the main chemicals used in water purification tablets is iodine, often in combination with other chemicals, though it can be effective on its own as well.

Several variations of iodine exist, from iodine crystals to a chemical known as tetraglycine hydroperiodide.

Be careful of storing iodine-treated water in plastic bottles because iodine fumes can leak during purification and damage the plastic.

Other chemicals found in water purification tablets include various forms of chlorine, which have the distinct advantage of fighting off E. Coli — something that iodine tablets cannot do.

The disadvantage of chlorine tablets is that you must use them within a certain number of days after opening or the chemicals may break down.

Another major chemical variation comes in the form of silver ion, chloride dioxide-based tablets, which are most effective against Giardia and Cryptosporidum.

Even more care must taken not to overuse these tablets because the silver in the chemical mixture can cause argyria, which can turn human organs grey.

Tablet Use Details

Vitamin C can neutralize the undesirable taste sometimes caused by water purification tablets. You must have a complete dissolution of iodine in the water before you can add this, though, or the vitamin C can result in adverse effects.

It's important to keep in mind that water purification tablets work through chemical reactions and will not remove sediment and physical pollutants.

If your water is cloudy, you should filter it first. And if you don't have a commercial water filter, even runing the water through a clean cloth can help catch the worst of the dirt.

After filtering your water, if necessary, you must dissolve the tablets in the water, which is easier and more effective the warmer the water is. Some chemicals and contaminants can be especially tough to kill in cold water.

Make sure to carefully read and follow the instructions on tablet packaging, as the chemical combination may change the time it takes to dissolve in a safe manner.

Warnings for Purification Tablet Use

As mentioned above, frequent use of water purification tablets can cause some complications and should not be ingested in large doses.

People with iodine allergies need to stay away from these tablets for obvious reasons. Also, the tablets may have adverse reactions to anyone with a thyroid condition.

Women who are pregnant may experience some complications and should avoid these tablets if at all possible.

The tablets are not guaranteed to work on all microorganisms because some may have resistance to that particular chemical combination.

Water purification tablets may lose their chemical effectiveness over time if they are not stored in a proper way. When in doubt, consult the manufacturer's information on how to use and store the tablets in an effective manner.

Other Chemical Pollutants and Their Danger

For more complex chemical pollutants in water, such as those found from toxic waste runoff, your water purification tablets will not help. Do what you can to track whether these chemicals have affected your water source.

If you suspect that toxic waste runoff or some other serious condition has contaminated your water, it may be in your best interest to focus on getting to a safer source of water than risk drinking polluted water on which your water purification tablets have no effect.

Combined Purification Processes

If you're in dire need of water and the water you've found is cloudy and full of sediment, you can try a combined purification process to help clean it.

This process combines tablets with other forms of water purification such as water-filtering and water-boiling.

Keeping a clean water filter, or even a clean cloth to filter with, in your survival supplies will be a potent tool. Some microorganisms thrive buried inside dirt in the water and may have protection from the chemicals. However, a water filter does a great job of eliminating such microbe-filled dirt and sediment.

Boiling the water can help to kill off remaining bacteria. Do this before tablet use, as the chemicals from the tablet can fume up to create a nasty gas.

Top Water Purification Tablet Products

There are a great number of water purification tablets on the market. Between the many different brands and chemical combinations, it can be confusing to find the best option, so here are a few that we've researched:

1. Polar Pure

Polar Pure contains iodine crystals and claims to remove the foul aftertaste that most other water purification tablets cause.

A five-ounce bottle can last for a decade or more and can treat up to 2000 quarts of water. It is not strong enough to deal with larger particles and focuses on killing viruses and bacteria in the water instead.

2. Potable Aqua Tablets

Potable Aqua tablets are made of a pure iodine-based mixture and come in two parts. The first part purifies the water, while the second removes the iodine aftertaste, so wait until the purification has worked before using the second stage.

Customers generally give this product high reviews for quality, though it is also often one of the more expensive solutions on the market.

3. Katadyn Micropur Tablets

Katadyn produces a variety of water purification tablets, as well as a variety of filters.

Their tablets use chlorine dioxide to neutralize a variety of chemicals. Because each chemical has a different rate of exposure until neutralization, you must wait for the full duration for optimal effect.

For very dirty water, or to treat Cryptosporidium cysts, you may have to wait up to four hours before the water is safe.

4. AquaMira Military Tablets

AquaMira tablets use a combination of sodium chlorite and sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate to potent effect.

These tablets often take the longest time for full effect. Similar to Katadyn tablets, though, they can tear through even some of the strongest contaminants and also remove color, odors, and other unpleasant solutions from the water.

5. Aquatabs Water Purification Tabs

Aquatabs products are one of the most efficient at treating large volumes of contaminated water.

These tablets are used by NATO, the World Health Organization, and The Red Cross because of their efficiency and effectiveness against many of the harsh impurities that regular iodine tabs can miss.

Keeping Healthy in the Great Outdoors

We at WaterZen hope this article helps you better understand water purification tablets and how they can keep you and your family safe and well-hydrated during backpacking/camping trips and natural disasters.

Eager to understand more about safe water practices? Contact us today to get more information!

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