Is Spring Water Safe to Drink Raw?

2:56 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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Today while driving down SR 260 here in southeast Ohio, I noticed a older man collecting water from a spring/pipe. This water issued out of the rock/hillside. This fellow claimed he drinks the water "all the time" and never once treated it.

My question is: is this water "suspect"? I thought about taking a sample of the same and having it tested at the local health department to see if it is suitable for human consumption as is.

I'm sure it would be perfectly acceptable however to use in my solar shower in the use of bathing however.

What can you tell me in regards to this most important matter?

3:34 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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"Raw water" is an interesting concept : )

There is no way to know what might have entered the aquifer. Perhaps a toxic waste site fifty miles away leached dioxins into the aquifer... one never knows. My neighbors drilled a 100' deep well and used it for a few years before having the fine, cold, water tested. The arsenic level was far above acceptable. So, they had a well dug down only 32 feet and have used ground water ever since -- tests show it is excellent in all regards. When the shallow wells in our area dried up one summer, one friend supplied as many as possible from his well; which was only six feet deep, but was situated only a few yards from a perennial stream. Sure, the water leached the copper from his pipes because of acid from decaying matter, but it always tasted fine.

IMO, perfect water, i.e., distilled water is the only "safe" bet -- but I don't want to put that much effort into "safe". I have drunk water "raw" in countries all around the world. Once you build up sufficient flora, the sickness subsides. : )

Common sense goes a long way. For example, if you are thirsty and have no water filter, look for rain water in pools in the rocks. Brush any mosquito larva aside and sip. That is probably safer than drinking from the nearest pond. JMO, YMMV.

4:17 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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Thank You for your insight.

5:44 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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It's true that you never know and that people should regularly test their well water. We tested ours about five years ago and found only raised levels of sediment, not a big deal, no other warnings.

Last spring we retested and this time were told we had above the acceptable limits of uranium. One thing that irked me about this (besides being 8+ months pregnant and learning my preschooler and I had been drinking water with uranium) was that our water's level had hardly gone up in those years, but the state of Maine had changed what levels they notified you at in those years. If we'd lived in Vermont we would have been told our water was unacceptable by their levels years before and would have done something about it then.

Now we have a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water in the kitchen.

Here in Maine a large number of wells have high levels of arsenic, radon, and uranium, among other things, and you can't tell unless you test and retest every so often.

7:02 p.m. on March 17, 2009 (EDT)
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When I hiked in the grand canyon for 20 winters from 1983 to 2003, I never used a water filter, but put Gatorade in it. I never had any problems with any water source in the canyon from the south bass in the west and the little colorado in the east. The only water that smelled bad was at burro springs in cremation canyon. The water of the little colorado has so much minerals in it from one of the last sources blue spring about 34 miles upstream of the confluence with the colorado that without a good dose of gatorade it tastes terrible. The colorado river it self which has hundreds of tributaries and side springs is actually pretty good too.
All the water one drinks at the south and north rims is piped up from roaring springs below the north rim. Tho I imagine that is filtered and treated for tourist safety.

7:02 p.m. on March 18, 2009 (EDT)
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In some areas where there are popular roadside springs, the local county health officials test the water from those springs periodically. Often they are quite good, but sometimes they end up posting warning signs. Sometimes a spring will get contaminated beyond the safe limits (whatever those are, as Alicia notes) for a short time, then get back to "safe", and sometimes go bad for a long period of time. You never really know unless you test the sample you are about to drink.

Alicia, does your reverse osmosis filter remove the uranium (presumably uranium salts)? I would think if it is in solution, being a chemical contaminant, the filter might not be effective. But presumably you have the output of the filter tested.

7:14 p.m. on March 18, 2009 (EDT)
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Alicia, does your reverse osmosis filter remove the uranium (presumably uranium salts)? I would think if it is in solution, being a chemical contaminant, the filter might not be effective. But presumably you have the output of the filter tested.

Yes, after it was installed the water coming out got the full test too. The RO system takes out the uranium and pretty much everything else.

Previously we were the rare exception that had the recommended amount of flouride naturally occurring in our water. But since the RO system removes that our kids now have to take fluoride supplements.

I have a note to myself to have the water tested annually (so that means right about now).

10:32 p.m. on March 18, 2009 (EDT)
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I have gotten water from roadside springs in places near my former home(s) such as Rock Springs GA, Soddy Daisy TN, Falling Water TN, & Grundy TN. It is supposed to be tested and safe to drink. Sometimes it is nothing more than a pipe coming out of a pile of rocks or a natural spring pool.

Some of the people in or near these types of areas (undeveloped ) still rely on this water source and will load up their truck or van with large containers and make weekly trips. They also live off the land, in varying degrees, by having huge gardens & by hunting and fishing. Since so much of what they eat and drink is local, contamination can hit them doubly hard.

I remember seeing signs around Greuttli-Lager TN telling you not to consume any locally caught fish from a couple specific areas until further notice. But apparently the spring water was still safe

1:25 p.m. on March 19, 2009 (EDT)
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This is exact the case here: people bring all their containers and simply load up on this water from this roadside spring. This happens all the time.

The waters issues out from a pipe that flows out of the rock and hillside. The water itself is very clear looking and cold.

4:23 p.m. on March 20, 2009 (EDT)
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I'm from a town just south of the Adirondacks in NY called Saratoga Springs. As the name implies there is a plentiful amount of natural springs. Heck you may have drank a bottle of Saratoga Water at some time or another before Dasani and Nestle began to mass produce bottled water. Needless to say water that comes from a spring is almost always perfectly fine to drink, and often it contains a lot of healthy minerals, you'll know those particular springs as soon as you get close to them. The reason the water is so clean is kind of ironic, it's been filtered by dirt,rocks and sediments, from well below the surface. Sounds awful but think of it this way, have you ever known anyone who has well water at their home? Not sure where your from but a lot of people in this area have just such a thing. All a well is, is a deep hole into the ground to the point where natural water flows freely. So when you think of it, anyone who is drinking well water is kinda, sort of drinking spring water. The big difference is a well has a pump to force to the water up and a spring forces water up from pressure below the earths crust. Try it some day, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

6:32 p.m. on March 20, 2009 (EDT)
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As others have noted, wells and springs, despite their depth are not inherently providing safe water. Saratoga Springs was noted for the "medicinal properties" of the water -- basically, some of the springs in town have a rich mineral content. Just as those flow with minerals, others might carry arsenic, radon, etc., whatever is dissolved or in suspension from the underground streams' travels.

Human pollutants can get into a deep aquifer as well. The last US administration exempted oil and gas companies from adhering to the clean water acts; permitting them to inject anything into the ground when fracturing oil seams.

"Even when diluted with water, some fracturing chemicals pose a threat if injected into drinking water.







Ethylene glycol



Toxic "plumes" of chemicals from old mines, paint factories, etc., can spread for miles underground, contaminating the ground water.

As Alicia noted, a well that is safe today, may not be tomorrow. It doesn't matter how cold and clear the water is, it could still be highly toxic.

However, "Ya gotta eat a peck a dirt before ya die." When it's a choice between dehydration and questionable water, I choose the water.

12:10 a.m. on March 21, 2009 (EDT)
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I'm on the Oregon coast and they say most lakes and streams in my area are safe. But to be on the safe side use a filter.

2:40 a.m. on March 21, 2009 (EDT)
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I have a mechanical water filter & water Purification liquid (bleach in a dropper bottle)

Most of the time I carry them but rarely use them no matter what time of year it is. I have only had problem in the 30 years I have been camping. When I have a doubt with the water I treat it one way or another or both.

I the past I have drank questionable, dirty, gritty water ans as I said before I only had one problem i'm lucky I guess. And no I have never squeezed a few drops of water out of elephant crap or any other crap or drank pee like Bear Grylls lol.

9:49 a.m. on March 21, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks for that info, I was under the impression that any water coming up directly from at least 100 feet in an impervious pipe, which I was told all publicly accesible springs must have installed, would always be clean. Due to the fact the toxins would be caught up in the upper water flowing down and would be filtered along the way. I guess I'll have to look into it further, but thanks for that info, I guess it's true "you can't always believe what you hear". Do you know if there is any goverment regulations in place to require a health agency to test the spring waters at given intervals? It seems like there would be. It seems as though most springs people go to, especially with water containers, are on public land. With that said, it seems that local government would have an obligitaion to either test the water for safety or post a warning that the water could be hazardous.

11:24 a.m. on March 21, 2009 (EDT)
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As overmywaders notes and as discussed in my Water series here on Trailspace, water can contain all sorts of chemical contaminants in addition to biological ones. Filtering through soil tends to reduct the biological contaminants, but many of the chemical ones get through the natural filtering action of dirt/sand/rock just as they get through that pump or gravity filter you bought at a high price at REI or the plumbing store. As Alicia noted, reverse osmosis filters do remove many of the chemical contaminants, though not necessarily the ones at molecular level (which is why I asked her whether the uranium was removed - I'm not sure what form it was in, possibly an oxide, but more probably a salt). But reverse osmosis filters are not practical for backpacking.

Hans commented on

It seems as though most springs people go to, especially with water containers, are on public land. With that said, it seems that local government would have an obligitaion to either test the water for safety or post a warning that the water could be hazardous.

Yes, the local (generally county) health department has the testing of known public springs that are known to be frequented by people collecting spring water as one of their duties. But note that I said "known public springs known to be frequented". Especially in this day and age of strapped finances, government agencies have cut way back and even in more flush times, they often did not have enough trained and licensed personnel to do the testing.

3:41 p.m. on March 25, 2009 (EDT)
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A few comments about SE Ohio "raw water": I've been told by several Wayne National Forest employees that there are a lot of natural water sources in SE Ohio that are contaminated due to old mining activities. In fact, none of the water around the Wildcat Hollow Backpacking Trail is drinkable, even with a purifier / filter.

Given SE Ohio's prolific mining past, I'd think twice about drinking any "raw water" around there.

9:30 p.m. on March 25, 2009 (EDT)
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A good RO unit will remove pretty much anything, down to the ionic level. It is what is used to desalinate seawater. Many "toxic" organic molecules are much larger and are easily removed.

But as you said, they are not practical for backpacking. The closest you will come is units on sail boats.

8:25 p.m. on May 31, 2009 (EDT)
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Hi, We moved to Northern Vermont last year. We were hiking Mt. Hor(by Mt. Pisgah and Willoughby Lake) today and my husband said the spring water coming down from the mountain was safe to drink. I was suspect because I had a bad experience when I drank from a "natural spring" in the ozark mountains and became very ill. I was told by the physician then that I probably got some form of bacterial infection from animal saliva, etc. Is there a "tried and true" way to know? Or should we just keep packing in water in our backpacks?

12:25 a.m. on June 1, 2009 (EDT)
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The only way to know for sure is to have a Bac-T capable lab test the water for you.

Otherwise, some are safe and some aren't, which is to say none of them are if you don't know the difference. Safest is to carry tablets or a filter or boil your water.

12:40 a.m. on June 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Yeah, but, east-sting, when you are thirsty, and the Bac-T lab isn't right there on the spot to test the water bottle you just filled .... I don't recall seeing many testing labs by the springs and streams in the backcountry. Then again, an MD friend of mine who I hike and ski with a fair amount carries what amounts to a complete ER crash cart in his pack (I asked him one time if he has ever needed it. His answer was that the only thing he ever had to work on in something like 30 years was blisters, a few minor scrapes, and a couple of thorns, but it was best to be prepared, just in case).

3:43 a.m. on June 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Ever since seeing a warning sign appear by a mountain spring I had been drinking from for years, with a "Pur" logo in the bottom corner, I have suspected that there is a kind of hysteria about water purity that has been fanned, in the backcountry, by the filter manufacturers and more generally by the bottled water people, not least Nestle. I read a provocative book, "Bottlemania", by Elizabeth Royte, that makes the case that what's in the bottle isn't necessarily any better or healthier than what comes out of the tap, even in NYC, and the bottled version comes with enormous cumulative individual and social costs. The beginning and other parts of the book focus on controversies surrounding Poland Spring water in Fryeberg, Maine.

When I get thirsty in the mtns and I have running water in front of me, I make a judgement. What's upstream (or up-aquifer)? Any backcountry campsites, beaver dams, concentrations of sheep? I'll pass. But if it's coming out of the ground on a tree-covered mountainside, or melting out of a snowbank, I don't hesitate. The big worry there is giardia, E.coli, and other microorganisms, and soil and rock are good filters for these.

As far as chemical contaminants go, I like to think that significant amounts are confined to places where there is, or has been, industry, cars, trucks, mining, etc. I suppose you might get a picodose of uranium or arsenic in a few handfuls of water from the wrong mountain spring, but so what? It's a one-time dose, very different from having it in your home water supply.

Norwegians love outdoor gear, and spend enormous amounts of money getting geared up for backpacking, skiing, cycling, kayaking, etc. But I have never seen anyone use a water filter, never seen them advertised or on display in the shops. You're thirsty, you drink. You get to the hut, you grab a bucket and go fill it up out of the stream or lake -- there's usually a sign that tells you where to get water, without any warnings or disclaimers. (To quote William Mulholland's refreshingly brief speech when he opened an aqueduct delivering water from the east slopes of the Sierra to LA: "Here it is. Take it.")

Yeah, I'm lucky to live in a country where you can drink the water, but IMO you can find safe water at least in mountain regions all over the US, you just have to use your judgement. I've been drinking surface water all my life, and I ain't dead yet.

6:54 a.m. on June 2, 2009 (EDT)
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This is a good topic, as I am teaching about our planet's water, to a group of 5th graders today.

I agree that ground filtered water can be safe from some "natural" bugs etc. The problem is, there is so much non-natural/ man-made pollution in our global water system that the earth simply can't remove it in one cycle. Some artificial pollutants will never be removed by natural means.

Remember too, that the bad things you have in you current water source may not be what is just upstream or up-aquifer. Due to acid rain and NPS (nonpoint source pollution), you may have chemicals and particulate in your water from the other side of the planet.

This is a growing problem for all of us. We can do everything in our power to make sure our water sources are clean and protected, and in the blink of an eye, they can be contaminated from somewhere, by something that have absolutely no control over.

8:55 a.m. on June 2, 2009 (EDT)
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Big Red is right, Elizabeth Royte's book, "Bottlemania" IS a real eye opener. Try to read it if you get a chance. Bottled water, at $1.29 for a 20 oz. bottle actually costs $8.25 per gallon! Now, cry to me about the price of gasoline.

12:12 p.m. on July 21, 2009 (EDT)
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I would imagine it's best to treat spring water. If you don't know where it came from than its not necessarily a good idea. A few towns over from me, there is an old spigot that was running for a long time. they stopped it when they realized that upstream, the water ran under a cemetary and the decaying bodies were contaminating it... i'm just not down with decaying body water.

2:30 a.m. on July 23, 2009 (EDT)
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There can be clues to put the odds in your favor of deciding if the water may be safe or unsafe.

*Is the water swiftly moving. If so it is less likely to hold contaminents that entered at the surface.

*If it appears to be from a deeper source your chances of surface contaminents leaching through the soils are diminished. It it is arising in a wetter area there is less chance it is coming straight from a deeper source. What is the terrain like? Is it at the foot of a mountain? Etc.

*What is in the area? Farms using chemical fertilizers and pesticides? A higher population density on septic systems? Intensely grazed pastures? Manufacturing?

You of course have no way of knowing if there is arsenic in the rock it flows through or other dangerous minerals and there are no guarrantees.

I would rather take my chances with mountain springs under the right circumstances than drink city water that reeks of chorine.

2:42 a.m. on July 23, 2009 (EDT)
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I would rather take my chances with mountain springs under the right circumstances than drink city water that reeks of chorine.

Ill agree with you on that note.

7:35 p.m. on July 23, 2009 (EDT)
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Wow I never knew I could drink right from the streams either. Thanks for the information guys!

3:29 p.m. on July 24, 2009 (EDT)
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Two thoughts and a clarification.

1. Who set the levels rating whether water is safe to drink, and how much long term (like over a generation) testing was done to set those levels?

2. How do the dangers of contaminated water compare to rubbing DEET, picaridin, methyl nonyl ketone, permethrin, PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), Parabens (in skin cream), and other skin creams onto your skin in very high doses every day for weeks during summer?

Clarification. I think we're having two conversations. One is about drinking water from an apparently publicly accessible spring when you are thirsty, the other is well water supplied to a home. Very different things.

If you are dehydrated far from known-good water, drink the water you find (but not sea water!). If you have a well for your house, get it tested every year (I suggest, even tho' I haven't had my 400' well tested in 5 years!).

2:34 a.m. on August 1, 2009 (EDT)
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It has been a while since I read the posts so I may be repeating someone.

One more thing to help maximize your chances of safe water out of a spring is to get it as close to the source as possible. If it comes out of the side of a hill and runs into a pool or down a stream bed try to get it direct from the source flow.

My guess is that probably the main concern in wilderness springs would be bacteria or virus which is not likely from a deep source.

Even if it is leaching toxic minerals underground (like arsenic) you would probably have to drink a lot over a period of time to be harmed.

4:56 p.m. on September 13, 2009 (EDT)
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I live in Wales (in the UK) and the house I live in isn't connected to the mains water system, so my water comes straight in from the spring coming out of the hillside. That's it - no filter or treatment at all.

I've been living in the house for 6 years now and drinking the water straight from the tap every day with no problems. Water has been lab tested - very clean and no chemicals. The land above us is all nature reserve, so no ag runoff or industrial pollutants which i guess would be the main problems.

I too think that common sense will allow safe drinking of natural water although *nothing* in life is ever 100%

10:43 p.m. on September 13, 2009 (EDT)
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I'll opt for filtering even the most pristine looking of streams. Might as well, I paid for the filter.

11:56 p.m. on September 13, 2009 (EDT)
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Water safety is probably the most discussed safety topic on backpacking websites. As already noted, there is no one answer to any of the questions about whether water is safe to drink or not. When I was in NZ, as long as you were above the sheep, the water was fine and I drank it all the time. Some of it was heavily glaciated (meaning it had loads of minerals in it), but still safe to drink.

Here in the US, I would apply the same standard, but since you are almost never above the animals, domestic or wild, giardia (a parasite) is a common problem. At lower levels, industrial contamination is common as well, so I would use a filter at the least and preferably a purifier (there is a difference) to get as much out of the water as possible.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles about water safety on the net.

A recent NYT series on water pollution makes it clear that our water is often unsafe to drink. Unless you are absolutely certain about the source, you will have no idea if it is contaminated or not. After reading this story and the others in this series, you may not be so quick to assume your water, even in your own home, is safe to drink.

12:09 a.m. on September 14, 2009 (EDT)
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I drink wild water all the time. So far, no problems. Maybe it's because I've lived in Mexico for 21 years and drink the water here! :-)

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