Six questions about boil water advisories VERIFIED

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We VERIFY whether you can brush your teeth, wash dishes or shower during a boil water advisory, and if it’s safe to drink filtered water that isn’t boiled.

Boil water advisories warn residents that they should not drink or consume tap water without boiling it first because of a risk for potential illness.

A boil water advisory is typically issued when the water supply could be contaminated following an equipment failure, leaking or broken pipes, or insufficient disinfectant in the water supply. 

Contaminated water could have bacteria such as shigella, viruses such as norovirus or parasites such as Cryptosporidium, according to the CDC. Illnesses from these microbes, including diarrheal illnesses, can also be caused by eating raw or undercooked food and poor hand-washing.

We’re VERIFYING several questions you might ask the next time there’s a boil water advisory in your area.

THE SOURCES

QUESTION #1

Is it safe to use tap water that isn’t boiled to brush your teeth during a boil water advisory?

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, it is not safe to use tap water that isn’t boiled to brush your teeth during a boil water advisory. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you should only brush with boiled or bottled water.

“Any water you ingest or place in your mouth should be disinfected by boiling (and then cooled) or come from an alternate source,” the New York State Department of Health says. It adds that bottled water is excellent for brushing your teeth.

QUESTION #2

Is it safe to shower or bathe during a boil water advisory?

THE ANSWER

This needs context.

Healthy people may still use their water for showering, bathing and shaving as long as they don’t swallow the water, avoid open cuts and there isn’t a “Do Not Use” notification, the New York State Department of Health says.

People with open wounds, cuts, blisters or recent surgical wounds and people who are immunocompromised or suffer from chronic illness should use water that has been boiled and then cooled to shower or bathe, the New York State Department of Health says.

A “Do Not Use” notice is issued when exposure to the water may adversely impact public health, the California State Water Resources Control Board says. This is different from a normal boil water notice, which is a warning against ingesting the water without first boiling it.

Children and disabled individuals should be supervised to ensure water is not ingested while bathing, the New York State Department of Health says. Bathing time should be minimized to further reduce the potential for ingestion.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recommends giving young children a sponge bath to reduce the chance of them swallowing water.

QUESTION #3

Is it safe to drink water that has gone through a filter attached to your fridge, faucet or pitcher without boiling it during a boil water advisory?

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, it isn’t safe to drink water that has gone through a filter attached to your fridge, faucet or pitcher without boiling it during a boil water advisory.

Water filters like those in refrigerators and pitchers, including the filtered water supply used to form the ice in your freezer, do not remove harmful bacteria or viruses, Houston Methodist Hospital says.

“All filters do not take out all microbes,” Natalie Exum, Ph.D., an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Water Institute in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said. “Some can pass through those filters.”

Some of the more concerning contaminants that can get into unsanitized drinking water can’t be removed by fridge filters, Exum said.

Houston Methodist suggests using bottled water to make new ice cubes and either drinking bottled water or boiling the water that comes through those household filters before consuming it.

QUESTION #4

Can you get sick if you don’t boil your water for long enough?

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Health officials say there is a chance you can get sick from drinking water you haven’t properly boiled during a boil water advisory, but it’s not likely. Even though it isn’t likely, officials recommend you further reduce that risk by boiling your water for at least one minute, while others recommend boiling water for at least two minutes.

“The likelihood of becoming ill is low,” the New York State Department of Health says. “However, illness is certainly possible, especially for people that have a chronic illness or may be immunocompromised. This is why boil water notices are issued.”

The CDC says that if you do get sick, the symptoms are similar to food poisoning: nausea, diarrhea, cramps and a mild fever.

To avoid this, the CDC and the New York State Department of Health say you should bring your water to a “full rolling boil” for at least one minute. If you live at an elevation above 6,500 feet, you should bring it to a rolling boil for at least three minutes.

WaterOne, a public water utility in Kansas, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recommend bringing your water to a full rolling boil for at least two minutes.

QUESTION #5

Is it safe to wash dishes during a boil water advisory?

THE ANSWER

This needs context.

You should use boiled water to hand-wash dishes. Whether you can safely use the dishwasher during a boil water advisory depends on the temperature your dishwasher is capable of reaching.

If the hot wash of your dishwasher reaches at least 170 degrees Fahrenheit and includes a full dry cycle, you can use it to wash your dishes, the New York State Department of Health says. However, the department warns that most home dishwashers do not reach this temperature.

The CDC says you can also use your household dishwasher if it has a sanitizing cycle.

If you can’t boil your water before using it to hand-wash dishes, the CDC recommends soaking dishes in a solution of one teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach for each gallon of warm water for at least one minute.

QUESTION #6

Should I always boil my water if I get any kind of contamination advisory?

THE ANSWER

This is false.

Only boil water if you get a boil water advisory. There are other contamination advisories that recommend you do not boil water.

A “Do Not Boil” advisory means the water supply has a contaminant and exposure to the water or vapors produced by boiling the water may adversely impact public health, the California State Water Resources Control Board says.

Additionally, a “Do Not Drink” notice means the water supply has an acute contaminant that cannot be rendered safe by boiling the water or by disinfection, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board.

This story is also available in Spanish / Lee este artículo también en español: Avisos para hervir el agua: Hoja de Datos VERIFY

The VERIFY team works to separate fact from fiction so that you can understand what is true and false. Please consider subscribing to our daily newsletter, text alerts and our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Learn More »

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