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January 12, 2018

'Raw water' is the latest fad. It's a terrible idea, experts say.

Daily Briefing

    Unfiltered water, known as "raw water," is a growing trend in the United States—but many experts warn that drinking water that has not been treated or filtered could be harmful and potentially lead to an outbreak of disease.

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    What is 'raw water' and why do people drink it?

    Raw water is unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized water that's bottled at a natural spring. Proponents of the movement posit raw water as an alternative to tap water, contending that the filtering process—which often involves ultraviolet light or ozone gas treatment—kills healthful bacteria and beneficial minerals. Many of them say they are also skeptical of water treated with fluoride.

    Several start-ups, such as Live Water in Oregon or Zero Mass Water in Arizona, have begun bottling and selling raw water, often backed by several million dollars in funding from supporters throughout Silicon Valley. Mukhande Singh, the founder of Live Water, said that tap water is poisonous. "Tap water? You're drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them," he said. "Chloramine, and on top of that they're putting in fluoride. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it's a mind-control drug that has no benefit to our dental health."

    The harms of raw water

    Health care experts and officials have voiced concerns about the raw water movement, citing the potential for waterborne illnesses and the historic benefits of filtration.

    For instance, Kellogg Schwab, a professor of water and public health at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed out that once the United States introduced water filtration, chlorination, and sanitation processes, water-borne diseases, including cholera and typhoid fever, virtually disappeared. "Having a central treatment process of our drinking water and then distributing it out to the individual homes and businesses is a tremendous asset that we, as a country, take for granted," he said.

    In fact, according to CDC, the United States has some of the world's safest drinking water—largely thanks to the filtration processes the country began putting in place in the early 1900s. As Jamin Brahmbhatt, a physician at Orlando Health, said, water filtration is "the whole reason we do not have a lot of the disease you see in third world countries … the things our forefathers died of we don't see it, because our government is so strict about how our water is cleansed."

    Experts cautioned that by skipping these recommended safety precautions, people can endanger their health, making themselves vulnerable to dangerous bacteria, viruses, and parasites—many of which can't be detected by the naked eye. A consumer would not be able to tell, for instance, whether animals, such as a herd of elk or moose, had relieved themselves in the water source, leaving it full with parasites, or whether naturally occurring elements—such as arsenic or uranium—or other chemicals, such as pesticides, have contaminated the groundwater, the Washington Post's "To Your Health" reports.

    According to Donald Hensrud, the director of the Healthy Living Program at the Mayo Clinic, "Without water treatment, there's acute and then chronic risks," including diseases such as E. coli or carcinogenic compounds that can show up in untreated water. "There's evidence all over the world of this, and the reason we don't have those conditions is because of our very efficient water treatment," Hensrud said.

    Experts also debunked concerns about fluoride, particularly as a mind-control drug, the New York Times reports. Vincent Casey—a senior water sanitation and hygiene manager at WaterAid, a clean water nonprofit—said the levels of fluoride found in the public water supply are not large enough to be harmful. "In low quantities, it is scientifically proven that it is beneficial to dental health," he said. "If a water company or a utility is carrying out its treatment to the right standards, there shouldn't be instances where these concentrations are going to hazardous levels at all."

    Risks outweigh alleged benefits, experts say

    Further, any benefits conferred by raw water are minimal in comparison to the risks, experts added. Citing the country's "incredibly safe and reliable water supply," David Jones, professor of history of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said, "The fact that people are worried filtration is removing necessary minerals is really an extreme case of one of these First World problems."

    Separately, Uttam Saha, the program coordinator at the Agricultural & Environmental Services Lab at the University of Georgia Extension, pointed out that while raw water might have some probiotics, it also has plenty of "disease-causing organisms." He added, "I would say the risk is more than the potential benefits of drinking the water. You don't know whether the water contains disease-carrying organisms or not, and the same is true for probiotics, we don't know if they are there unless the water is tested."

    Experts also noted that people can get the minerals found in untreated water by eating a healthful diet—and without running the risks of drinking raw water. And Michelle Francl, the chair of the chemistry department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, disputed the idea filtered and unfiltered water are that different at all in terms of health benefits and chemical composition. "Water pulled from a spring or water that comes out of the tap—the water molecules are identical," she said. "So the only difference is what else is in there and some of those things might be innocuous like the minerals, some of them might be not so innocuous—things like Giardia and bacteria have been found in springs."

    Francl added, "The lack of clean water kills hundreds of thousands of children a year. So this notion of raw water is crazy"  (Bever, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 1/4; Bowles, New York Times, 12/29/17; Ducharme, TIME, 1/3; Bowerman, USA Today, 1/3).

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