It is human nature to approach preparedness according to gaps that we see in our plans. Most of us make checklists (see List of Lists), have 72 hour bags (BOB), and cover the three B’s (Beans, Bullets, and Band-Aids). We rotate food and water, learn new skills, and do anything we can to bridge the gap between our perceived lack of preparedness and what we consider as “sufficiently prepared”. We may get so caught up in building bunkers and buying bullets that we operate in an “out of sight, out of mind” mode. Sure, we should prepare for four-legged and two-legged predators, but what about our unseen enemies? I’m not talking conspiracy theories here, but about microbes. These microscopic enemies can penetrate your defenses and strike your entire group before you have time to formulate a response.
We’ve had several wonderful articles about bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, but I thought it would be helpful to condense some of the information I have gathered and offer some advice on how to create a defensive strategy against our smallest enemies- a Pathogen Protection Plan (PPP), if you will. I will do my best to keep this basic. I usually have to scroll up and down on articles with lots of terms and acronyms, so I’ll try to keep it short and memorable. Get a pencil, just in case.
To help break up some of the cloud surrounding the microscopic world, let me give a little more background. We will get to the interesting part soon, I promise. Scientists use a classification system to identify organisms, using what’s called binomial nomenclature to assign them a two-part name. Humans are Homo sapiens, and the horrible antibiotic-resistant bacteria we call MRSA is actually Staphylococcus aureus. If these names are used at all in common parlance, they are often shortened. Staphylococcus becomes Staph or just S. Due to advances in genetic research, sometimes the names change as scientists discover that something they thought was similar to something else actually wasn’t. Enterobacter sakazakii (E. sak), a dangerous microbe in the infant formula industry, was recently renamed Chronobacter sakazakii. Different name, same bacteria. It’s confusing, but you won’t need to worry too much about that.
For the purposes of this article, let’s refer to all of the above named disease-causing organisms as Pathogens (Greek- producers of suffering). They all have their differences, but we can group them together as Pathogens because they have one big thing in common- you. The earth is filled with an unbelievable number of microscopic organisms, but most of them don’t thrive inside the human body. You’d be shocked to know how many viruses are in a milliliter of seawater, yet it’s unlikely you would get sick from any of them. Our focus in creating a Pathogen Protection Plan (PPP) is not to create a living space devoid of microbes, but to reduce the chances of exposing ourselves to the dangerous microbes. Some pathogens are easier to kill than others. Most things are killed with an alcohol or bleach solution, but spore-forming microbes must be treated more harshly, typically with high heat methods.
Let’s start our PPP with the most basic of needs – water. We know that a water filter is necessary to prevent gastroenteritis caused by Giardia lamblia or Cryptosporidium cysts. Ceramic filters (the best on the market) have pore sizes down to 0.3 micrometers (or microns), but they are ineffective against Hepatitis A virus (often found in tainted water), with a size of 0.028 microns (approximately 1/10th of the pore size). I don’t know offhand if silver impregnated filters are rated to “kill” viruses (viruses aren’t technically alive)-most filters say that they prevent growth of microbes when not in use. Using unscented bleach to treat water takes the guesswork out of it.
The next item would be food. Most of us are familiar with using a pressure canner to kill C. botulinum spores. In the food industry, a concept known as HACCP is used to identify and minimize risks associated with ingredients that are likely to be contaminated. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, and is a system originally developed for NASA’s space food. In the home, we are taught to cook food according to a dumbed-down version of HACCP. No mixing vegetables and raw chicken, wash your veggies, wash your hands- things like that. HACCP gives us a more organized approach to preparing hazardous food (raw chicken, etc) that is easy to teach through SOP’s (you do have SOP’s for your group, right?). Let’s go through the seven principles of HACCP:
1. Conduct a Hazard Analysis- What is in the area that can contaminate the food? Raw meat, engine coolant, and metal shavings are all possible hazards. Identify anything that could harm you if it made it into your meal.
2. Identify Critical Control Points- What can be done to reduce/eliminate the hazard, and at what step should you do it? Is all of your meat fresh? Do you refrigerate it? Do you cook meat all the way through?
3. Establish limits for CCPs- How bad does the hazard have to be before you give up and start over? Is that chicken fresh? If not, does it smell “off”? If the dog won’t eat it, it might not be safe, even after you cook it. How long can the fridge be above normal temp before you consider the food inside “no good”?
4. Monitoring CCPs- How can you tell that the CCP is working? Do you have a thermometer in the fridge? You should! If you like meat pink, do you check the temperature? Temperature is the easiest way to monitor after TEOTWAWKI. Glass thermometers are plentiful online. Some laboratories change them yearly to maintain calibrations. That’s how I get mine.
5. Corrective Actions- What will you do if your CCP limits are not met?
6. Verify- Check that the system is working properly. The best way to do this is to have someone else prepare a hazardous meal following your SOP word for word. If you are skeptical of the result, you have some work to do!
7. Establish record-keeping procedures- You should have records like garden logs, weather events, and vehicle maintenance already. When you use an ingredient that smells or looks odd, you should write it down somewhere. If someone gets sick, write it down! Tracking what you ate will help you identify latent food allergies (some people get migraines from certain foods) as well as problems associated with the food (was your home-grown chicken diseased?). You don’t need to keep industrial logs- 100 kilos of x ingredient and 200 kilos of x product. You might have something like that for inventory maintenance, but it’s not going to do much good for a Pathogen Protection Plan.
Not everything about a HACCP plan is tied to chickens. Potato salad is often the cause of a bad day. Potatoes contain Bacillus cereus spores, which activate upon cooking and grow if the salad is not kept cool. The toxins they emit can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
In a situation without medical assistance, we can convert a pressure canner to act as a sterilizer for medical equipment. There are sterilizers for sale that are designed for use on a stovetop. Quality examples can be had at AllAmericanCanner.com. If TEOTWAWKI comes and you don’t have a sterilizer, adding an anti-siphon tube to the vent stack will allow you to use it to sterilize surgical equipment and dressings if you’re really in a pinch. An anti-siphon tube is a tube typically installed on pressurized gas tanks (most often CO2) that are stored horizontally. The tube prevents liquid from coming out of the pressurized tank when we want the gas. A quick image search will give you a diagram of what I am talking about. We want the tube opening just above the surface of the water. The reason for a siphon tube is that hot, dry air is a poor sterilizer, while hot steam is a great sterilizer. Because steam is lighter than air it will move to the top of the pressure canner and exhaust out, leaving the air untouched. The tube forces the air to move out of the canner first, leaving the steam behind to effectively sterilize items. To remove the guesswork of a DIY system, buy a stovetop sterilizer .
A standard sterilizer cycle is 121*C (which translates to approximately 18 psi on the gauge) for 15 minutes. Pressure canners typically have a max safe operating pressure of 15psi, so it would be wise to process items for at least 30 minutes. Because the stovetop varieties lack the special purge cycles of larger, modern steam sterilization equipment (autoclave), processing time is lengthened beyond the standard 15 minute cycle. Follow the directions. A supply of sterilizing pouches will allow you to sterilize medical equipment and bulk surgical dressings for storage and emergency use. This way you won’t have to run a 30 minute cycle while someone is waiting for you to pull a bullet out. Typical prices I have seen for the larger pouches are $ 15 for a pack of 200. That’s 200 sterile cotton bandages you could make and store, just with a bolt of cotton or muslin cloth and a pack of pouches. Put a date on these and rotate them every other year or so (again, follow the directions). If you lay in a couple hundred dollars worth of supplies, you could have a booming SHTF business bartering sterile dressings and the like. I would not advise bartering your bandages if you are using a DIY sterilizer. You’re responsible for the product you market, even after a collapse. Repackage and re-sterilize if the pouch is damaged in any way.
Another great thing about sterilizing pouches is that they have chemical indicators to let you know if sterilizing conditions were met when processed. Keep in mind when sterilizing to not crowd your equipment. You need ample room in the pouches and around loose items to allow the steam to circulate and contact the items. You can’t cram the pouch full of metal instruments and expect them to come out sterile! Do not put soiled items into the sterilizer! Clean and disinfect them first with soap and water, then a soak in a bleach solution. Sterilize after rinsing with clean water. I must reiterate that this is only for a worst-case scenario. Don’t practice medicine without a license. Having said that, it is not illegal to prepare for an emergency in which you are unlikely to have access to professional medical care. As always, something is better than nothing.
So you have clean water, safe food, and sterile medical equipment after the collapse, but you still have to worry about communicable (contagious) diseases. Once you’re in your permanent location, your PPP must include methods for isolating, controlling, and removing pathogens carried by people or objects. This may mean a “sick room” for a person who has diarrhea (you don’t know what’s causing it), with a plan for sanitizing the living quarters afterwards. How will you handle the waste? How will you sanitize the bedding, clothing, and other items that won’t fit or you don’t want to put in the sterilizer? A simple way to sanitize the room would be to use a hand-pump garden sprayer with a bleach solution. We use these at work to sanitize floors. It’s 20 to 30 times faster than mopping with a sanitizer. Make sure what you’re spraying won’t eat the floor if you spray it and let it dry. Some quaternary ammonia solutions dissolve floor wax and make it gummy. Epoxy floors are about the best I have found for chemical resistance.
You must have a plan to deal with all possible contaminants. How will you treat someone in your group that has contracted a blood-borne pathogen (Hepatitis B,C) just before the collapse? What will you do with surgical instruments that get covered in their blood? What will you do with your clothes that are now covered in their blood? How will you clean the room to prevent other patients from contracting the disease? How will you prevent yourself from contracting the disease? You must create a method for dealing with these scenarios. Although disposable items are not ideal, they are a quick and easy solution. Gloves are almost entirely necessary. Although more expensive, nitrile gloves are hypoallergenic and more resistant to puncture. Don’t buy these from big-box stores. Nitrile gloves made for medical or laboratory applications are thick, while consumer-grade nitrile gloves are very thin and tear easily. Surgical masks are also a must if your group plans to conduct surgery post-collapse (I’m assuming you have someone who is trained and competent). One word of wisdom on surgical masks- the blue masks you see on television shows will not protect you from a sick person. Look at who is wearing them in the OR. Not the patient. They are designed to catch aerosols created from talking, coughing, and sneezing. They will only protect you if the infected person is wearing them, not the other way around. The easy rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t form an airtight seal, it doesn’t protect you from the environment.
Another angle to consider is combat. What happens if an enemy punches through the perimeter, is killed, and now you have to dispose of the body? What precautions will you take to be sure you don’t catch something he may have? Although it seems paranoid, I feel the best course of action for a group in a fortified location is to treat all outsiders as though they are contagious. That means full coveralls, respirators, dedicated shoes, and dedicated shovels and equipment, all of which will either be kept in a designated area outside the main living quarters and away from food storage and preparation areas, or sanitized/destroyed by flame or other sufficient, non-destructive processes. If your group adopts this method, it would be wise to designate only two people to do the disposing in order to limit the quantity of disposable/dedicated items required. More than two people would make things faster, but the waste of protective materials increases. It is easier (and cheaper) to use only two sets for the entire excursion, then dispose of them.
In order for a PPP to work effectively, all of your group members must have a general understanding of aseptic technique. Let’s skip the classical definition. This means, generally, that there is a hierarchy of cleanliness. I would set it up as follows:
1- Sterile – Item contains no pathogens or other foreign materials that can cause illness. Example use -extensive surgery, dressings for 3rd degree burns.
2- Sanitary – Item has been treated with a chemical or other process that makes it unlikely to carry pathogens. Example use- minor wounds (stitching, minor burns)
3- Clean – Item has been cleaned to remove soil and possibly sanitized at some point. It has been stored in a place where it is unlikely to come in contact with pathogens. Example use- food preparation (no raw meat or eggs) and consumption.
4- Unsanitary- Item is stored in an area thought to contain pathogens, or is used in handling objects that may contain pathogens. Example use – gardening, preparing raw meat/eggs. NOTE: Although a garden shovel and an egg whisk are on two opposite ends of a traditional “dirty” spectrum and would not be used for the opposite task, we are only focusing on microbes that will certainly cause illness. A compost-laden garden is unlikely to make you sick, even if you eat some of the dirt (I don’t advise it).
5- Contaminated- Item is known to be used for cleaning or removing infected materials, and/or is stored in a place with other contaminated items. Example use – burying dead outsiders, digging cat holes, sanitizing a quarantine area.
The general purpose of aseptic technique, for our discussion, is to prevent transferring a pathogen from a known or possibly contaminated object or area to an area that is unlikely to be contaminated. This means that items higher on the list cannot be used for a task lower on the list and then re-used for an item above the first task. If you were to use a Class 1 (sterile) item to perform a Class 3 task, you could not use the same Class 1 item for a Class 1 or 2 task without proper treatment of the item (sterilization in this case). I find it easier to change the classes to colors, a la, white, yellow, blue, green, black, respectively. This way, you can turn it into a game of “tag”, where when an item of one color “tags” an item of another color, the item higher on the list changes to the other color. Whatever system works for you is best.
Hopefully this article has given you some tools to develop a plan for minimizing your risks associated with disease-causing microbes. Stay safe, stay healthy!!
Disclaimer: Do not perform medical procedures on yourself or others while you have access to professional medical care! It is illegal in the US to practice medicine without a license. The views expressed are not those of a medical professional. You are solely responsible for the consequences of using any information contained herein.
About The Author: J.R.M. has Bachelor’s Degree in Biology/Microbiology, and several years of experience working with microbes in a laboratory environment.