The trend to consume "raw" or "live" water is making waves, so to speak. Proponents swear by its health benefits, while critics are flabbergasted that anyone would choose to consume untreated, unfiltered water. Because that's what raw water is. People collect it from springs, wells and rain barrels or else buy it from specialty stores.
"In an age where 'unprocessed' or 'raw' foods are considered to be healthier, some people have extrapolated that concept to drinking water," says Seth Kellogg, a hydrogeologist with the National Ground Water Association in an email. "Especially in areas where drinking water tastes processed because it is supplied from treated surface water which requires filtration, chlorination and other chemical processing to be safe."
She notes that the reason most water is treated is because the sources are not clean enough for humans to drink safely. "Raw water could contain heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury or radon that leaches from rocks within the earth. [It] may also contain biological contaminants such as parasites, algae, bacteria, fungus and viruses which cause diseases including cholera, typhoid and dysentery." Plus, surface water from lakes and rivers is exposed to animal waste, air pollution and stormwater runoff which has fertilizers, pesticides and the like.
The Case Against Raw Water
Worldwide, contaminated water kills more than 500,000 people per year by way of diarrheal illnesses, and 2 billion people have no choice but to drink feces-contaminated water, rather than the highly regulated options so many others take for granted. So, why would some folks voluntarily elect to drink raw water? It may have to do with the regulation itself.
"The raw water fad started because of Americans' general mistrust of tap water and fears of water contamination," says Bengt Rittri, founder of Bluewater, a global water advocacy brand and water purifier manufacturer. Scandals like the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan have fanned the flames of such distrust. In fact, Bluewater recently conducted a survey which found that 56 percent of Americans are concerned that their water is contaminated.
"People who are choosing to try the raw water trend are looking for water that hasn't been processed in our water treatment plants. The companies that are selling 'raw water' are pitching it as unfiltered and untreated, capitalizing on distrust and paranoia about water treatment," explains dentist Dr. Bobbi Stanley, who regularly fields questions from patients concerned about fluoride in treated water.
Many raw water drinkers do this to avoid fluoride consumption, citing toxicity if ingested at high levels. However, fluoride is only added to drinking water in very low, safe and highly regulated amounts, with great benefits. "Fluoride is naturally occurring in almost all water supplies. There are proven benefits to health from having fluoride in water, primarily concerning dental and oral health — and research has shown that in most cities, every $1 invested in fluoridation saves more than $30 in dental treatment costs," Dr. Stanley explains.
In addition to the fluoride concern, other raw water proponents say that beneficial bacteria necessary for gut health is stripped out during the purification process, to the detriment of human health. Dr. Morton Tavel, Indiana University School of Medicine professor and author of the book "Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician's Advice," debunks this prevalent logic. "It's true that tap water filters out bad microbes like giardia, [and] also takes away less harmful bacteria that could be good for gut flora," he writes in an email. "Sadly, however, the probiotics in water won't necessarily help fend off any diseases, and even though some research suggests that probiotics may be beneficial to health, one can obtain these organisms in a far safer fashion from products such as cultured yogurt." He calls the raw water fad "one of the most ridiculous ideas I have ever heard."
Consuming Raw Water Safely
"I personally drink raw water not by choice, but because of my severe medical conditions," emails Kathlena, The Allergy Chef (she goes just by her first name). "I have over 200 food allergies and intolerances and can't drink most water safely." To date, the only water she's been able to safely consume is a specific brand of raw water from Maine. "You have to ask a lot of questions when finding water, as some companies will list something on the label, but it may actually be light filtered."
Even those within the industry recommend that people be mindful in selecting a brand, and not go dipping buckets in random creeks. "I do not caution people from seeking out live water; rather, I would caution them about drinking it without knowing where it came from and what testing had been done to ensure it is safe to drink," says Grey Hecht, CEO of Idaho-based raw water bottler Rising Springs in an email interview.
Certain springs, he says, "are safer/superior because of the terroir [environmental conditions] in which the water lives, the extensive testing the companies do, and the safety protocols they use for packaging. Rising Springs comes up from 2.2 miles [3.5 kilometers] deep in granite rock that protects it from depth to top, and has been tested pure to parts per quadrillion -- the water has zero contaminants. It is packaged at the source under sterile conditions."
The perceived quality assurance comes at a price, however, with a one-time delivery of a two-pack of Rising Springs Natural Mineral Supplement (10 liters or 2.6 gallons total) costing $20.
Perhaps the most incredulous of this raw water trend are people in countries that lack widespread access to clean water. "I have heard of many cases of raw water making people sick," explains Dr. Mashfika N. Alam, who practices medicine in Bangladesh. "[P]eople in certain parts of my country, particularly the hilly areas, tend to drink directly from streams and fountains. Cases of typhoid amoebiasis and cholera, which are waterborne diseases, are quite prevalent in these areas."