Raw Water: Another View

It may be safe to drink, but to embrace it still isn’t healthy
Raw Water: Another View

Raw water has been in the news a lot lately. Most of the coverage consists of ridicule. One article told about all the nice “friends” you’ll meet through drinking untreated, unfiltered, unsterilized water. Friends like Giardia, Legionella, norovirus, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella and E. coli.

Raw water, according to these stories, is taken directly from natural springs, bottled and sold. It is selling for ridiculous prices in enclaves like Silicon Valley: One account cited 2.5-gallon jugs of the stuff going for a little over $60 in the San Francisco area.

Who exactly, the news articles seem to say, would drink water that hasn’t gone through a treatment process of some kind? The stories tend to draw parallels between raw water and raw milk. Lately, there is a cache in some circles around drinking milk that comes straight from the cow without going through the process made famous by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s.

Well, here’s a news flash. I, the editor of a magazine for operators of plants that purify drinking water, use nothing but raw water in my home. I drink it, cook with it, wash dishes in it, shower in it, even water plants with it.

Mind you, I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool back to nature sort. I don’t typically buy organic fruits and vegetables. I don’t drink raw milk. And I don’t pay several dollars per gallon for my raw water. I get it from a well. It comes to me, yes, unsterilized, unfiltered, and untreated, unless you count the filtering that occurs naturally in ground — the same filtering, presumably, that the expensive commercial varieties of raw spring water get.

My well water gets tested (ideally) about once a year. Each time the test comes back clean. My wife and I suffer no ill effects from drinking it. So I wonder: How different is that from the raw water that has been in the news? Should I be an object of ridicule, too?

It’s true that water straight from a spring might contain all manner of pestilence. There’s no way to tell if it’s safe just by looking or tasting. But presumably, although commercial raw water is not treated, it can be tested to make sure it is free of pathogens. And I’m pretty sure it is tested, unless its sellers are pathologically indifferent to human suffering, ignorant about the threat of legal liability, or both.

So, what’s wrong with raw water? If people want it and are willing to pay for it, why can’t they have it? In my book, they’re welcome to it. Here, though, is the problem I have with the raw water craze: By implication, it tends to cast an aspersion on the treated water that most people in the developed world drink and use daily.

The assumption seems to be that “natural” water is better than what comes out of the tap. Because it is “natural,” it must taste better. Because it is “natural,” it must contain more minerals and so be healthier. All of which for the most part is absurd, especially when the prices being asked for “natural” water are, by any rational standard, outrageous.

The raw water craze might do harm by emboldening some people to bypass the bottling process and drink directly from seemingly pure streams and springs out in the wild where heaven only knows what pollutants and pathogens are present.

Worse, it could do harm by undermining people’s faith in the water that comes to them through their local utilities. After all, if raw water is better, then it must follow that something is wrong or less than ideal about what comes from the tap. It would be deeply unfortunate for such a perception to take hold, given the consistently excellent work our utilities do to deliver safe and healthy water every day.

The thirst for raw water ignores a fundamental truth about human nature and human progress: We adopted modern conveniences for good reason. We live in nice homes because caves, tents and crude cabins were cold, drafty and uncomfortable. We heat those homes with natural gas and oil because coal was filthy and wood was messy, labor intensive and at times scarce. And we drink treated water because down through the ages, untold millions of people got sick and died — and still do in the developing world — from drinking raw water out in nature.

There is nothing whatsoever harmful or insidious about putting the water we drink through rigorous treatment and testing. And apart from making some kind of fashion statement, little good can come from reverting toward raw water and turning the clock back toward unhealthy times best buried and forgotten forever.


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