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Millions of Texans have been issued a boil water advisory. Here's what that means

As many Texans go without water and power, boil water advisories have been declared throughout the state.
To boil water, fill a pot with tap water. Heat it on a high heat until the surface is bubbling. Let it sit at a rolling boil for at least five minutes before removing from heat. TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As extreme winter weather continues to plague Texas, many parts of the state have declared boil water advisories.

Record-low temperatures in the state led to damaged infrastructure and frozen water pipes. Many residents have reported pipes bursting or water being shut off, and images of homes and apartment buildings being flooded with water have gone viral on social media. The water difficulties come as the state is also grappling with power outages and continued dangerous weather.

According to NBC News, 276 water systems in the state have issued boil water notices, and nearly 264,000 residents are in areas where "water systems are completely nonoperational." While power is being restored across the state, the state's environmental quality commission told NBC News that each water system will need "bacteriological sampling," which can take up to 24 hours, before the boil water notices can be rescinded.

What is a boil water advisory?

A boil water advisory is issued when local or state agencies are concerned about potential water contamination. Under these advisories, all water that will be consumed or used on surfaces should be boiled.

If you are boiling water for drinking or other reasons, make sure that you let it cool to a safe temperature before consuming or using it.

How can I boil water?

To boil water, fill a pot with tap water. Heat it on a high heat until the surface is bubbling. Let it sit at a rolling boil for at least five minutes before removing from heat. If you do not have a stove, you can use a grill or other source of heat, but be careful not to bring grills inside and make sure that an adult is always monitoring the situation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boiled water can be stored for later use. Make sure it has cooled to a safe temperature before drinking or using.

Can I drink filtered water during a boil water advisory?

The CDC advises that even filtered tap water should be boiled, and says that water from "any appliance connected to your water line, such as ice and water from a refrigerator," should not be used.

What activities do I need to boil water for?

If you are going to be drinking or consuming the water in any way, or if you are using it to clean a surface that you will eat off of, like a dish, it's important to boil or otherwise treat the water. If you can't boil water, use bottled water if available.

If you are under a boil water advisory, consider using disposable plates, cups and utensils as much as possible. The CDC also notes that household dishwashers generally are "safe to use if the water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit) ... or if the dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle."

If you do not have a dishwasher, or if your dishwasher does not reach those guidelines, the CDC recommends washing and rinsing dishes using hot water. In a separate bin or basin, add one teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach per one gallon of warm water. Soak the rinsed dishes for at least one minute before letting them air-dry completely.

Baby bottles should be sterilized. Washable toys should also be cleaned with bottled water, boiled water, or water that has been disinfected with bleach. If you need to feed an infant, it's recommended to breastfeed, use ready-to-use formula, or boil water before using it in a bottle.

Surfaces should also be cleaned with boiled or bottled water.

If you have pets, make sure that their water dishes are refilled with either bottled or boiled water that has been cooled to a drinkable temperature.

Use boiled or bottled water to brush teeth.

When can I use tap water during a boil water advisory?

Not every task requires water to be boiled. According to the CDC, it's usually safe to use running tap water and soap to wash your hands, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but boiled or bottled water is preferable. If soap or running water is not available, consider using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

You can also use tap water while bathing or showering, but be careful to avoid swallowing any water. If you have babies or young children, the CDC recommends giving them a sponge bath to "reduce the chance of them swallowing water."

It is safe to use unboiled tap water to wash clothes. Household plants and gardens can be watered with tap water.