Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
Giardia, campylobacter dos and donts
By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer
Ah, summerseason of hiking, biking, camping, and, if youre not
careful, gut-wrenching waterborne sickness.
Almost anyone whos a fan of the outdoors has heard of Giardia, the
single-celled, misery-inducing microscopic organism that lives in water and the intestines
of warm-blooded animals, including humans.
The sneaky little parasite can be picked up by swallowing its resting
stage, the cyst, which is a sturdy little pod that exits in an animals body along
with feces and then lives in water.
The cysts are incredibly durable, capable of surviving for years in
streams, lakes and shallow wellsjust waiting for a hapless warm-blooded host. Once
ingested by the unwary, the pods sprout tentacles and suction cups with which they attach
themselves to the intestinal lining, where they multiply and cause fever, nausea,
abdominal cramping and diarrhea.
Ned Rosenthal, a science writer for the University of Alaskas
Geophysical Institute, got the bug on a moose hunting trip in 1998 and described it this
"The noises from my abdomen were so loud my dog barked at them."
The disease is sometimes called Beaver Fever, because of the beavers
obvious association with water. But in fact, Giardia is spread by almost any warm-blooded
creature, often free-ranging cattle.
Although dogs also are vulnerable to Giardia, Dr. Randy Acker, of the Sun
Valley Animal Center, says that most canines that drink from streams in the Wood River
Valley where they might ingest the parasite ultimately become immune to the disease.
Dr. Acker says he prescribes the medication flagyl (metronidazole) for a
wide range of possible causes of common canine intestinal upsets, including Giardia.
A bacteria, also spread by cattle, causes another common waterborne
disease in humans. According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, campylobacteriosis
(caused by the campylobacter bacteria) is one of the most common gastrointestinal
infections in the United States.
Humans pick up campylobacter in the same way they pick up Giardiaby
drinking contaminated waterand the symptoms are practically identical. However,
Giardiasis is capable of lasting for months or years if left untreated, whereas
campylobacteriosis symptoms usually last from one to four days, according to the
Massachusetts Department of Health.
Every year, the Wood River Medical Center treats at least a few cases of
both diseases, Dr. Kathy Haisley, a WRMC emergency room physician, said during a telephone
So far this summer, there have been no locally reported cases of
Giardiasis, she said, but last week an unlucky group of geology students camping near
Mackay, about 50 miles east of Sun Valley, came down with campy. Haisley said the more
than a dozen infected students drank water from a well that may have been contaminated by
"Its good for people to know they should be careful,"
Haisley said, because we dont have drinkable water in springs or rivers.
Dr. Leslie Tengelsen of the State Division of Health, expanded that list
of potentially infected sources to lakes, shallow wells and even campsite faucets and
During a telephone interview Friday, she said people should avoid brushing
their teeth with water from campsite faucets and should be careful not to swallow water
while taking showers at campsites, because, often, the water is pumped directly from
streams or lakes.
Tengelsen said that other infectious bacteria, such as E. Coli and
salmonella, live in untreated water.
So how does a thirsty camper get a drink in the midst of all this disease?
"The best thing is to filter or boil your water," Tengelsen
said, while discouraging the use of iodine, a common disinfectant. Tengelsen said she
lacked confidence in the quality of some of the iodine products on the market.
Of course boiling is probably the most inexpensive method of purifying
water, time permitting, Tengelsen said. All it takes is a camp stove or fire and a metal
container. And, according to Tengelsen, it will kill all micro-organisms in the water,
including campylobacter and Giardia.
Iodine is also inexpensive. One brand sold at a local camping supply store
claims to treat 25 quarts of water and costs $5.50. According to the label, the product is
"proven effective against Giardia..." and "makes questionable water
bacteriologically suitable to drink." The bottle the iodine tablets come in is
light-weight and smallabout the size of a wine bottle cork.
A major drawback with iodine, according to a group of forest service
employees interviewed at the store, is the 30 minute wait required while the germicidal
tablets do their work. Also, they said, the disinfected water has an unpleasant taste,
which can be partially masked by mixing the water with Tang. And, according to the
products label, it shouldnt be used continuously, though the label
doesnt say why.
At a significantly higher price, water filtration systems offer all the
purifying capabilities of iodine and boiling with a bonus. Some claim to remove not only
odor and bad taste, but also industrial and agricultural pollutants such as heavy
metalslike aluminum, mercury and leadand synthetic organic chemicals and
volatile organic chemicals.
Of course you pay for what you get. Prices for the filtration systems
range from around $30 to around $200.
And most of the systems involve a complex arrangement of pumps, hoses,
bottles and bits and pieces that can get lost or broken. During a back-country trip, that
could spell disaster if the system is the only source of safe drinking water available.