The wild streams and rivers of rural Canada look clear and crisp enough to drink directly from the source, but thirsty cottagers beware: the potential for water problems and contamination is much greater in rural areas.
Rural water supply can often have close contact with vegetation, soil, livestock manure and human sewage, causing high quantities of dissolved organic material and a high microbial content within water sources that are often used for drinking. These are non-point sources of pollution and pose a problem to cottagers looking for safe drinking water.
Many cottages are not connected to municipal services, making it an individual or community responsibility to ensure the use of safe water.
As a first step, Health Canada suggests that if water is not municipally tested, it should be done periodically by a provincial or private laboratory. Tests can identify viruses, bacteria and parasites that may be in the water.
The tragic E. coli incident in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000 raised awareness about water quality, but also caused confusion about which water tests should be performed. Increasingly, people are testing for the bacteria in their water, not realizing that there are many more possible sources of illness lurking in their water source. Furthermore, current microbial detection tests only account for one third of waterborne pathogens.
According to Health Canada, only 10 per cent of waterborne illnesses are ever reported. There have been many cases where there is lack of recognition of the relationship between disease outbreak and contaminated water. The symptoms are misdiagnosed as flu or food poisoning, resulting in an understatement of available statistical data. Despite how little information we have on the number of cases of illness that are due to water contamination in Canada, it’s known that these issues do occur, making water testing and treatment a necessary consideration for all cottage-goers.
After testing water sources and identifying potentially problematic microbes, then comes the challenge of choosing an appropriate system to treat water. Due to the variety of problems as well as systems, making a choice can be a confusing task. Often, more than one system is needed. Obtaining water from a well or from surface sources requires testing and a treatment solution that suits the circumstances. Expert consultation is a wise decision.
Typically, groundwater is found to be free from microorganisms because of the filtering effects of soil layers. It is often naturally clean and safe for consumption, but it is still important to perform periodical testing because of the potential for contamination (see “Boil Your Water: Three Years and Counting“). On the other hand, surface water almost always requires some form of treatment in order to obtain safe drinking water.
The right choice for each household depends on the problem(s) at hand and the required features and capacity. Point-of-use devices connected to a specific tap will treat the water for single or multiple taps for cooking and drinking only. A point-of-entry device is installed on the main water supply and treats all of the water used in the home.
If the desired result of a treatment system is disinfected water for the entire household, distillation, ozonation, chlorination and ultraviolet (UV) devices are practical. A distiller can be purchased for batch or continuous purposes and is useful wherever there is electricity and space for the device. UV water treatment is beneficial because it is chemical-free, taste- and odour-free, and very effective. Usually, these options must be used in conjunction with a microfiltration system.
For the removal of chemicals and general improvement of water quality, reverse osmosis is a popular option. This system involves pushing water through filters that allow only water (not ions or larger molecules) to pass through, resulting in a clean and mostly contaminant-free product. This method eliminates approximately ninety per cent of harmful contaminants.
Health Canada has guidelines for consumers looking to buy a water treatment device, such as finding a system that meets the ANSI/NSF health-based certification standards. Most treatment technologies are covered by standards, but ozonators and microbial purifiers are not. It’s important to check the product labelling for a disclosed certification before buying.
With water treatment devices, there is also some confusion with regulation. Drinking water treatment devices fall under the scope of the Hazardous Products Act. The Act would be helpful in determining regulation, but currently there are no specific regulations applicable to these devices. There are some regulations with regards to labelling and medical usage in other legislation.
The lack of continuity in rural water regulation and water treatment devices in Canada creates confusion and possible dangers for consumers. When in doubt, the best way to ensure water quality and safety is to take precautions.
Morgan Vespa is studying geography at the University of Guelph.