We’re used to seeing words like “natural” and “organic” used to sell us more expensive produce, nuts, and sugar. The latest trend in food purity campaigns? Raw water.
New companies are now selling customers unfiltered, untreated, and extremely expensive water. The movement, according to a December 2017 article in the New York Times, has grown in part from skepticism about water treatment practices in the United States, whether that’s concern over fluoride supplementation or lead pipes.
The Twitter response to the Times’ coverage flowed like your colon is apt to do after drinking unfiltered water:
Apparently people are rushing to get "raw water." Just wait till they get "raw cholera". https://t.co/rorvv3xOFy
— Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) January 1, 2018
Looking for a name for my #RawWater startup
Hesitating between "Montezuma's Rawvenge" and "CholeRaw"
— Knstntn (@GuitarCheesePiv) January 5, 2018
— NCLawyer (@NC_Attorney) January 4, 2018
Live Water, one of the companies profiled in the New York Times’ coverage, acknowledged the resulting “media controversy” and recently defended the safety of its product. Live Water describes its water source as “an ancient aquifer that we have extensively tested and has shown no harmful contamination what so ever [sic]. Water is collected from the covered spring head, so there is no chance for surface bacterias [sic] to enter the water.”
The terminology appears scientific. A “covered spring head” sounds like a safety device, but a “spring head” is simply the part of a spring that comes out of the ground. A “covered spring head” could mean a plastic cover on top of the spring, or even just a rock enclosure. There’s no reason to assume that harmful bacteria couldn’t enter that water source, because covered spring head or no, animals choose to defecate wherever they please. Furthermore, even “ancient” aquifers, while acting as nature’s coffee filters, do not filter out all kinds of bacteria.
The grammar errors in Live Water’s hastily-written response to the Times’ negative publicity should suggest that Live Water’s claims have not undergone thorough peer review. Those looking to read more about those claims should read fact-checking site Snopes’ analysis of Live Water’s scientific claims about raw water. There’s no strong evidence that “raw” water provides any health benefits over filtered, treated water. There is plenty of evidence that treated water has changed the world for the better.
Obviously, our country’s drinking water is not without problems. It’s unconscionable that it was just last week, nearly four years from the start of its water crisis, that Flint, Michigan’s water quality was declared restored. But raw spring water is not the answer to these problems. Just ask the citizens of Puerto Rico (many of whom are still in the dark, by the way), who still don’t have reliably safe drinking water. Clean drinking water is perhaps the greatest human invention since fire (which allowed for the boiling and subsequent sanitation of water). In fact, it’s hard to overstate the importance of learning that diseases can be conveyed by water.
In “The Ghost Map” author Steven Johnson explains how physician Jon Snow ended a medical crisis and essentially founded the field of epidemiology when he started marking deaths from cholera cases on a map. Snow’s map allowed him to identify the source of water common to all of the cases. The end to the cholera epidemic was astoundingly simple: authorities removed the handle from the Broad Street Pump and people stopped getting sick. (Sidebar: I haven’t confirmed this with George R. R. Martin, but it’s hard not to see the similarities between his Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones” and the historical counterpart. Both are men who recognized evidence of a sweeping plague before everyone around them took notice. Maybe in the next season Jon Snow should check the water sources north of The Wall.)
Many critics of raw water consumers are comparing the pseudo-scientific arguments for raw water to those made by anti-vaccination activists. Refuse to get vaccinated? You might get whooping cough. Refuse to drink treated water? You might get cholera. Some anti-anti-vaxxers crow about measles outbreaks affecting those who choose to go unvaccinated. It wouldn’t be surprising to see tweets celebrating the first confirmed cases of Giardia among raw water adherents.
The problem with this line of argument is that, in both cases, those on the pro-science side fail to see why the arguments against vaccination and for untreated water are so powerful. It’s easier to believe that a medical industrial complex is after your money, that the invisible regulations that have kept our water (mostly) safe are actually poisoning us, than to accept that the health conditions like autism or chronic pain or cancer have no cures. Viewed in this way, the raw water movement and others that have preceded it take root wherever there is uncertainty and doubt. In our uncertain time, is it surprising that people are willing to pay almost $15 a gallon for water that makes the future feel a little more fixed?
(Actually, make that almost $25 per gallon. The 2.5-gallon jugs of Live Water previously sold at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery for $36.99 are now going for $60.99.)