What’s a Boil Order?
I get up and shuffle to the bathroom to shower, grab my toothbrush and then realize that I can’t brush my teeth unless I go downstairs to the kitchen. At least not without running the risk of ingesting unknown bacteria and contaminates. What a great way to start the day.
A water main break on Sunday night caused a drop in water pressure that might allow untreated water to enter the system, meaning who knows what’s in there now. Boiling the water for a few minutes would be enough to kill any bacteria present and make it safe again. Simple, right? Except how do you spread the word to 9,000 people before they take their next drink? The city put out an email that we didn’t see until the next day; we found it when we realized school had been cancelled. I always wondered how people found out about things like this if they didn’t catch the news. Apparently they don’t.
What is a boil order anyway? What does that mean, other than rethink all your contact with water? I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure what to do. After the first day one of my 17 year old’s friends was complaining that her mom wouldn’t let her shower. The schools were closed while they figured out what they would need to do to make sure kids didn’t accidentally take a sip. When it resumed the call went out for dozens of volunteers to come monitor bathrooms for “excessive splashing” or help wash hands with bottled water. The water fountains were turned off. Even if the kids washed with soap and water they had to use hand sanitizer afterward. Local restaurants had to limit what they could serve, especially beverages, and a friend of mine who worked at McDonald’s said she didn’t understand why they didn’t just close.
You don’t realize how easy it is to turn on the tap and have clean water that tastes good until you’re under a boil order. If you’ve never had to worry about your water quality you don’t know what is safe and what isn’t. Is the filter in the fridge able to clean out bacteria? Do I need to boil water for my pets too? Do I want to eat my produce unwashed or just wait to see how long this lasts? How hot does the water get in my coffee maker? I went to lunch in Des Moines with a friend and was thrilled to be able to have a glass of water that I didn’t have the think about before I drank it. It even had ice, and I was so thirsty it had to be refilled six times.
We are a culture of convenience; you could even call us spoiled. Having to boil water and wait for it to cool to be able to drink it is a lot of trouble compared to twisting a knob. Bottled water disappeared from the shelves of local stores and was brought in on pallets at the schools. My daughter told me some kids at the high school thought that if all the bottled water was gone the school would close again so they were drinking as fast as they could or taking whole cases and hiding them in lockers. My husband opted to get a few gallons but we quickly discovered we did not like the taste.
I began to think of far away places where women walk for miles with jugs of water in their hands or balanced on their heads. We had worked with a family in Mexico who was thrilled to have an old hand pump installed on their family well because it allowed them to fill a bucket on the ground instead of hauling it up with a rope. I thought of stories from my own father’s childhood, of his mother daily drawing water up hand over hand from the backyard well not only for consumption but for laundry, washing dishes, and bathing. Did they boil their water before they used it? They sure didn’t have the option of going to the store for the more convenient bottled version.
Being under a boil order not only made me appreciate having clean water easily available, it made me more aware of how much we use it. Brushing teeth, washing hands, drinking, cooking, ice cubes, it was everywhere. I realized how fragile our way of life is, how one thing can turn back the clock and take away our modern conveniences. I thought about how many people in the world have never had safe water in the first place.
Our boil order lasted only a few days, but I hope that it leaves a lasting impression. We have a bad habit of not appreciating what we have until it’s gone, and I admit that was the case for me. Now I jump to turn off the tap while the kids brush their teeth, reminding them how wasteful it is to let it run. I drink tap water and marvel at how easy it is. I value the ice in my drink keeping it cold. Simple things. Now that I know how good we have it I don’t want to forget again.