Clean water is of utmost importance, whether you’re backcountry hiking, camping, or travelling abroad. And there are many ways to disinfect water, including chemical tablets, mechanical filters, simply boiling, and ultraviolet light. And while we know that UV light from the sun works with enough contact time, does a handheld UV light work well enough to be safe?
They’ve been around since the late 90s, but decreases in size and cost have made them more popular recently. They are lighter than ceramic filters, don’t require heating and then cooling the water, and they don’t leave a funky taste in the water after use. And while you can go to SteriPENs’s website and see a bunch of articles they sponsored showing how awesome they are, it’s nice that an independent group has finally looked into their effectiveness.
One of the things the article points out is that UV light is bacteriostatic, not bacteriocidal. Their DNA is damaged, so they can’t reproduce or cause infection (probably), but the water is disinfected, not sterile. Also, while still effectively treated by UV light, viruses and spores require much higher doses to be inactivated.
They tested the function against of the SteriPEN against water bottles contaminated with Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and the spore of Geobacillus stearothermophilus. Using 1 L bottles in 3 different styles (wide mouth reusable, narrow mouth reusable, and disposable narrow mouth bottles), they either agitated as per the instructions for the device, or let the water remain calm. For wide mouth containers, you can stir. With narrow mouth bottles, you need to plug the mouth with the pen and invert and shake. However, knowing that many people don’t do this, they also did a test by simply stirring the narrow mouth bottle as well. They also measured the spectrum emitted by the device during use.
Used correctly the SteriPEN works pretty well. Bacteria counts were reduced more than 99.99%, but spores were only reduced 99.57% on average. If you don’t agitate the water, this drops to 94.2% on average. The SteriPEN does emit its maximal intensity of UV at 254nm, which is the most efficient wavelength for bacterial DNA. And in a bottle made of glass, PET, or metal, there’s no risk of UV injury to the user, as it’s all blocked. However, in a big open-topped pot, there’s a risk of UV emission that could be hazardous to the eyes. Thankfully, the device won’t turn on if not immersed in water.
Therefore it is ok to use a SteriPEN to disinfect your water, as long as you’re doing it right. You’ve got to agitate the water, not just put it in and let it sit there. These authors also didn’t test against viruses, but the manufacturer does have data, and since this paper replicates some of their other results, it’s not unreasonable to state that it likely works against those as well.
Downsides are a few. 4 AA batteries only gives you 100 cycles and the bulb is pretty fragile, so pack extras. It doesn’t filter out toxins, and turbid water decreases efficacy, so you might night a filter anyway. This particular device has 2 settings, 90s of light for 1L containers, 48s for 0.5L ones, so you’ll need to make sure you have it set for the correct size as well. Finally, it doesn’t keep the water disinfected forever, so be aware that the water can become contaminated again and require re-treatment.
Timmermann LF, Ritter K, Hillebrandt D, Küpper T. Drinking water treatment with ultraviolet light for travelers — Evaluation of a mobile lightweight system. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2015 Nov-Dec;13(6):466-74. [PMID 26616307]
- Hensley J. Just how clean is that water container? EBM Gone Wild
- Hensley J. Drinking water on the cheap EBM Gone Wild
- Hensley J. Don’t drink the water. EBM Gone Wild
EBM Gone Wild