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What to Do if You Get a Boil Water Notice

Follow Steps to Stay Safe and Informed

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Water bottles

When tap water is questionable, drinking bottled water is a safe and convenient option.

© Don Farrall / Getty Images

It's possible that over the course of your lease term, you'll get a "boil water notice" in your apartment mailbox. This means that your water district has detected levels of bacteria or other harmful contaminants in the water supply that exceed local drinking water standards.

Getting a boil water notice shouldn't be a cause for panic. Very often, the problem has to do with the water treatment or distribution pipes, and not a criminal or terrorist act. But you should take all boil water notices seriously.

If you get a boil water notice, take the following action:

8 Things to Do After Getting a Boil Water Notice

  1. Follow notice's instructions. Start by reading the notice carefully. It should give instructions on what you should do -- and what you should avoid doing -- until the boil water notice is lifted.

  2. Check and discard. Look through your apartment's kitchen and pantry for any food, ice, or baby formula that you've made with (unboiled) water during the period of time the notice indicates the water supply has been unfit for consumption. Promptly discard any such items you find. If you're in doubt about whether a particular food is safe, err on the side of caution and throw it out.

  3. Boil water before use. Don't use water from the tap unless you boil it first. Boiling kills bacteria and other harmful organisms, so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises consumers to boil water for at least a minute before using it to drink, prepare food, make ice or baby formula (if applicable to you), or brush your teeth. Of course, you'll want to allow the boiling water to cool before using it. You can speed up this process by putting your already boiled water in your refrigerator or freezer until it has cooled down to the right temperature.

  4. Buy bottled water. Bottled water is a safe alternative to tap water, and it's convenient while a boil-water notice is in effect because you don't need to boil it or take other steps.

    Money-saving tip: Buy bottled water in bulk and look for sales at supermarkets and wholesale clubs such as Costco, BJ's, and Sam's Club. Look carefully at the price label and you'll probably see the "cost per unit" included, which tells you how much an individual bottle will wind up costing you if you buy the pack. Since packs can vary as to the number of bottles included (as well as the number of ounces per bottle), comparing the unit cost is the easiest way to determine which is the best deal (without having to do the math in your head or fuss with a calculator).

  5. Take note of symptoms. The notice should tell you what contaminant was found and what symptoms to look out for. For example, it might say, "Disease symptoms may include diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and possibly jaundice, and any associated headaches and fatigue." It will probably also advise you to take symptoms particularly seriously if you or anyone in your household is a young child, a senior citizen, or has an immune deficiency.

    If you see a doctor (or bring your children to a pediatrician) for any reason after a boil water notice, be sure to point out the notice and the list of symptoms. The doctor might not be aware of it (especially if she lives and works in town unaffected by it) and should keep it in mind while examining you to determine if it's relevant.

  6. Spread the word. Inform your apartment neighbors about the boil water notice. If there's a bulletin board in the lobby, mail room or other common area, post a copy of the boil water notice you received. When informing others about the boil water notice, keep in mind that exaggerating or spreading misinformation can cause unnecessary fear. Remember that you're not expected to act like a health department representative but just trying to be a helpful neighbor. So, stick to the information in the boil water notice and point out the phone number(s) a neighbor can call for answers to lingering questions.

  7. Get all the information you need. Don't be afraid to get more information, if you have concerns that you believe aren't adequately addressed in the notice. Look for the phone numbers of your water district and your county or local health department on the notice.

  8. Take final steps. Read what the notice says about a possible estimate for the water problem to be fixed. Also, find out how you'll be informed about an all-clear. For example, will you get another notice, or perhaps a robocall? Or does the original notice instruct you to check your local newspaper or online news sources for important updates?

    Resume drinking your tap water only after you've gotten the all-clear. (Remember, any estimate indicated in the notice is only that). Once you get the all-clear, follow any steps contained in the notice or in subsequent news reports on what precautions you should take. For example, your health department may advise you to thoroughly flush the service line to your apartment and all taps by running water from each faucet for five minutes before resuming normal use.

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