The next time you’re feeling parched and reach for a cool glass of water, imagine how much more refreshed you’d feel if it were teeming with giardia. What could better enhance your hydration experience than topping it off with countless microscopic diarrhea-causing organisms?
For those of you who feel that “infection risk” is a quality you miss in the water you get from the tap but don’t have the time to drink directly from a contaminated stream, finally there is a product for you! Introducing the latest health craze: “raw water.”
Of course, raw water—unfiltered, untreated water bottled directly from springs and streams—isn’t really a “new” invention. The New York Times recently reported on start-ups from Oregon to Maine marketing raw water to consumers wary of the chemicals in tap water who instead prefer water that is “live.” Drinking this water supposedly confers healthful benefits thanks to its “probiotics.”
To say that I have concerns as a doctor about drinking water that hasn’t been tested or treated for chemical or microbial content is to put things mildly. It is an astonishingly terrible idea.
Doug Evans, a prominent raw water enthusiast (and founder of the defunct juicing company Juicero), is described by the Times sneaking across private property by night to collect water from the spring closest to him in San Francisco, proximity apparently being the only factor that matters. Another raw water purveyor, Mukhande Singh, is quoted touting the benefits of drinking water that literally turns green if you leave it out too long, and decrying the presence of “mind-control drug” fluoride in tap water.
It should go without saying that adhering to an absurd conspiracy theory about why water is fluoridated should automatically disqualify someone from being taken seriously about any topic of consequence. Beyond that, however, trying to avoid fluoride in your water by drinking the nearest available natural source is an ill-considered way to go about it.
“There’s not just the problem with getting too little fluoride to help prevent tooth decay,” Grant Ritchey, a Kansas City-area dentist, told The Daily Beast. “There’s also the possibility of getting too much of it from a natural source, which can cause health problems of its own. In either case, how is the consumer to know?” (Ritchey further assured me he was not part of a massive mind-control conspiracy.)
The potentially harmful chemicals to be found in untreated groundwater go far beyond fluoride. A 2011 study by the U.S. Geological Survey reported that 13 percent of private wells yield water with trace element content in excess of federal regulations, among them cancer-causing elements like radon or chromium, and kidney-damaging uranium or cadmium (PDF). (In Maine, where raw water producer Tourmaline Spring has been granted an exemption from state regulations, arsenic can be a problem.) Coming directly from a spring is no guarantee that water is free from harmful chemicals.
It’s not just chemicals in water that can be harmful, of course. There are plentiful pathogens to be found in untreated spring water. In addition to giardia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises outdoor travelers that drinking unsafe water puts them at risk for infection with bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Touting the benefits of drinking it because it is laden with unchecked microbes and thus “probiotic” could just as easily be applied to downing a cupful of topsoil from your nearest cow pasture (neither of which I recommend as a physician).
The benefits of eschewing water treatment and filtration are the latest in a series of hare-brained movements in opposition to medical and public health advances. Giving an injection of vitamin K can prevent dangerous brain bleeding in infants, but some people have begun refusing it for their babies. Drinking unpasteurized milk puts people at risk of potentially deadly infections, but “raw milk” advocates advise doing it anyway. And of course, the pernicious anti-vaccine movement continues to promulgate the baseless notion that vaccinations are responsible for autism or other disorders, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
To this list apparently we can now add something that might have seemed basic just a few days ago: the consumption of safe drinking water. No public health good that is the result of sustained medical scientific scrutiny is safe from detractors, it seems. In fact, having a basis in science appears to be an outright negative to some people.
Every year, 2 million people die worldwide because of waterborne diarrheal diseases due to lack of safe drinking water. No doubt the 1 million victims of Yemen’s cholera outbreak would have given anything to turn on a tap and know what was coming out wouldn’t sicken or kill them. Citizens of developed nations like the United States have such plentiful access to safe drinking water that we think nothing of using it to bathe and wash, as well. There is no example of blinkered, mindless privilege more sickening, both literally and figuratively, than having access to such a huge societal good—but deciding you’re better off without.