Raw water – another dangerous fad borne out of ignorance

I thought I’ve heard it all about food fads. GMO-free salt! Gluten-free cauliflower crust pizza. MSG-free honey. Raw milk diets. I suppose what we need next is an expensive gluten-free, GMO-free, MSG-free, pure organic raw water.

And guess what? Yes, now you can buy that ludicrously expensive pure, untreated, unfiltered, unsterilized raw water. And put your life and your health at risk for absolutely no benefit but following another inane fad.

I used to think that homeopathy was absurdly expensive, but ultimately useless water. It still is. But raw water comes close to homeopathy in being both ridiculous and ridiculously expensive.

Let’s look at the dumbest pseudoscientific food fad of 2018 – and it’s only day 3.

WTF is raw water?

Raw water is an actual term used by hydrology, the field of science that examines the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth and other planets. In this context, it is natural water found in the environment and has not been treated, nor have any minerals, ions, particles or living organisms been removed.

There are different sources for raw water including lakes, rivers, streams, wells, springs, rainwater, and others. Generally, raw water is used for livestock, industry, agriculture, and other non-human needs. Many communities have a dual water system, in which treated water is piped into homes, while untreated raw water is used to irrigate lawns and plants.

But in the context of this article, expensive raw water relies upon the naturalistic fallacy, which states that our water ought to be natural with no processing whatsoever. This fad states that any treatment of water is bad – you must consume water untreated and unfiltered from the source, whatever that source may be.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the fad has become quite popular and quite pricey:

At Rainbow Grocery, a cooperative in this city’s (San Francisco) Mission District, one brand of water is so popular that it’s often out of stock. But one recent evening, there was a glittering rack of it: glass orbs containing 2.5 gallons of what is billed as “raw water” — unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized spring water, $36.99 each and $14.99 per refill, bottled and marketed by a small company called Live Water.

“It has a vaguely mild sweetness, a nice smooth mouth feel, nothing that overwhelms the flavor profile,” said Kevin Freeman, a shift manager at the store. “Bottled water’s controversial. We’ve curtailed our water selection. But this is totally outside that whole realm.”

Here on the West Coast and in other pockets around the country, many people are looking to get off the water grid.

Start-ups like Live Water in Oregon and Tourmaline Spring in Maine have emerged in the last few years to deliver untreated water on demand. An Arizona company, Zero Mass Water, which installs systems allowing people to collect water directly from the atmosphere around their homes, began taking orders in November from across the United States. It has raised $24 million in venture capital.

The claims about the water are filled with the pseudoscience you’ve come to expect from your typical woo-pushing new age quack. And this one is best exemplified by the claims of one Christopher Sanborn, I mean Mukhande Singh:

The founder of Live Water, Mukhande Singh, started selling spring water from Opal Springs in Culver, Ore., three years ago, but it was a small local operation until this year. Marketing materials show Mr. Singh (né Christopher Sanborn) sitting naked and cross-legged on a hot spring, his long brown hair flowing over his chest.

Pure water can be obtained by using a reverse osmosis filter, the gold standard of home water treatment, but for Mr. Singh, the goal is not pristine water, per se. “You’re going to get 99 percent of the bad stuff out,” he said. “But now you have dead water.”

He said “real water” should expire after a few months. His does. “It stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery,” he said. “If it sits around too long, it’ll turn green. People don’t even realize that because all their water’s dead, so they never see it turn green.”

Dead water? Seriously? Apparently, Mr. Singh believes that water has some spiritual and magical property that it actually does not have. Like homeopaths, who invented the whole pseudoscience of “water memory” to explain their quackery, Singh is trying to get you to believe that water has more power than it does. Other than quenching thirst and maintaining the water and salt balance of the body, it is just 2 atoms of hydrogen combined with one atom of oxygen.

And the prices for this raw water fad keeps getting higher and higher. So only elites get to drink it. If this isn’t an example of entitled white privileged consumption, then I don’t know what is.

I’ll continue drinking the water out of my tap (that I admittedly run through a Brita filter). I’m guessing my costs for 20 liters of water may be less than 1 dollar. Compare that to the $50 or $60 for the same 20 liters of raw water. Yeah, it is White Privileged Woo™.

The bad news –what’s in your raw water?

The composition of raw water varies from source to source, which is one of the major concerns with consuming this water. You don’t know what you are ingesting. For example, raw water may contain one or more of these contaminants:

  • Humic acid and other complex acids, produced by plant decay. These chemicals can discolor the water and are generally safe. However, humic acid can react with some ions, such as chlorine, to form toxic chemicals.
  • Minerals, mostly carbonates of calcium and magnesium. These are generally safe.
  • Particles of clay and silt, which may leave a precipitate at the bottom of your bottle of water, but are generally safe.
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasites, and cysts. Giardiasis, a parasitic infection caused by giardia, is endemic in water sources, even apparently pristine ones far from agriculture or industry.
  • Dissolved air molecules, especially oxygen, which are not generally a concern and occur in almost all water, raw or not.
  • Natural radioactive particles, especially radon and uranium.
  • Dissolved heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
  • Perfluorinated alkyl acids, such as perfluorooctanoic acid, which could contaminate raw water sources that are commonly used for drinking water.

Sure, I’ve listed some of the contaminants that could be in your raw water, and we don’t know whether it’s in the supply of raw water or not. But that’s the point – it’s not tested or treated for these substances. And some of these things, even small amounts, can be fairly dangerous. For example, radon is a known powerful carcinogen, and limiting it in your water is important to health.

The raw water industry is unregulated, so you have no clue what you’re drinking. You have no clue what the source is.

Although I am fundamentally opposed to bottled drinking water for having no real benefits, while providing the world with a mountain of plastic waste, at least the industry provides pure, clean water. It is filtered to remove toxic chemicals. And it is sterilized (usually using UV radiation) to kill nasty pathogens. It’s safe.

Safe is not a word I’d use for raw water.

And what’s not in your raw water!

I’m sure this will cause some of you, who fundamentally oppose pseudoscientific nonsense, a bit of consternation.

The most important missing component is fluoride, the controversial salt that has been critical to improving dental health across the world. And it is about as safe as just about any community health initiative can be. It is certainly safe than many of the components of raw water.

Of course, some of you think that fluoride is dangerous, it’s forced medical care or some other nonsense. That’s been generally debunked, so I’m just going to move on. Fluoride is good. Lacking it is bad.

On the other hand, extremely high levels of fluoride are dangerous, and those levels are usually found in naturally occurring fluoride that gets into raw water. Many communities whose water sources are high in fluoride have to actually remove much of the fluoride to make it safe.

Because raw water is not tested or filtered, it’s possible that it may actually have higher levels of naturally-occurring fluoride than your city tap water. Think about that fluoride haters.

The benefits of raw water

Scientifically, there are no benefits to this water. From the perspective of evidence-based medicine, there are no benefits. Aside from privileged whites thinking they are superior to the rest of us for drinking this dangerous liquid, I can see no benefits. Well, the companies selling this stuff are making money by the boatloads, so there’s an investment opportunity I suppose.

Do you know what’s ridiculous about this? Most of the world would love to have the availability of pure, fresh water right from the tap, a privilege that most of us in the developed world take for granted. As David Gorski wrote on Science-Based Medicine,

I can’t help but think that those of us living in developed nations are so wrapped up in our little cocoons of technology that we forget that in much of the world potable water is not a given—nowhere near it. Waterborne disease is still very common, with waterborne diarrheal diseases responsible for 2 million deaths each year, with the majority occurring in children under 5.

As for those advocates claiming that raw water is more “natural” and “alive,” I like to point out that Giardia, amoebic dysentery, cholera, salmonella and shigella, E. coli, and a whole host of other waterborne diseases that used to regularly cause outbreaks that would kill humans in large numbers before the advent of sewage and water treatment systems (and still do in undeveloped countries) are very much “natural” and “alive” as well.

Summary

Raw water is a fad that has no basis in science. It is not a better water for your health or well-being. In fact, there is powerful evidence that it is unsafe and quite dangerous for your health. It may contain radioactive elements. It could have “natural” chemical contaminants. It probably has dangerous pathogens that could cause dire harm to people.

Again, to quote Dr. Gorski,

It would be one thing if there were demonstrable health benefits to “Live Water” and other “raw water” products compared to tap water or even bottled water. In such a case one could discuss the risk of disease versus the documented health benefits. Sadly, however, there are no such health benefits yet demonstrated. Raw water is all high (and expensive) risk for no scientifically demonstrable benefit.

So, potential harm for no known benefit. This is actually worse than most food woo, which generally has no benefit but doesn’t cause harm.

I hope this fad passes, but I know better.

Citations

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!