Silicon Valley elites are obsessed with dangerous, unfiltered water -- and it reveals a hidden economic inequality

Live WaterA screenshot from Live Water’s site.
  • Packages of “raw water” – unfiltered, untreated, and un-sterilized spring water – are becoming more popular among the Silicon Valley elite.
  • At the same time, San Francisco has some of the cleanest tap water in the United States.
  • Raw water is expensive. The craze is symptomatic of the area’s wealth disparity.

In the United States, clean drinking water is not usually considered a luxury. Though places like Flint, Michigan and and Jackson, Mississippi have dealt with seriously contaminated water, the greater majority of Americans (around 80%) have access to tap water without major contaminants.

But in Silicon Valley, “raw water” (unfiltered, untreated, and un-sterilized spring water) is flying off the shelves. As The New York Times recently reported, some of the more popular “raw water” startups are marketing their products as a luxury. At Rainbow Grocery, a co-op in the city’s Mission District, a 2.5-gallon, glass orb of untreated Live Water sold for $US36.99 last week, and now $US38.49 due to a manufacturer price increase. A refill of the jug costs $US16.49, Rainbow Grocery spokesperson Joey Cain said.

There may be a few reasons why raw water has caught on in the Bay Area.

The first is that the San Francisco area is one of the richest parts of the country. According to a 2017 report, San Francisco boasts the highest rent prices in the US, with the median monthly price for 2-bedroom at $US4,780. Plenty of Americans have doubts about the quality of their local tap water (According to a recent survey by the water advocacy brand Bluewater, approximately 200 million Americans said they worry about contaminants in their drinking water.) And while untreated water does not have proven benefits and could cause drinkers to contract things like E. coli and Hepatitis A, some Americans have long sought to get off the get off the water grid. But it’s likely harder for lower-income communities with serious water problems to buy “raw water” (as useless as it may be).

The “raw water” trend also fits into Silicon Valley wellness culture. Like many other recent popular trends that promise to optimise users’ lives, such as nootropics, cryogenics, eating charcoal, and drinking buttered coffee, raw water’s claims are backed by limited science.

Proponents of “raw water” worry about the fact that fluoride is added to tap water (though that has been shown to improve dental health), and that some tap water flows through lead pipes. While lead and copper contamination are risks for several US cities and towns, San Francisco has some of the cleanest drinking water in the US.

Looking at water-quality data from 2010 to 2015 in every US zip code, the Environmental Working Group recorded just three types of contaminants at potentially alarming levels in San Francisco. For comparison, researchers found that Flint, Michigan had nine such contaminants.

Similar to Bodega (which seeks to replace independent corner stores) and the now-defunct Juicero (which sold $US400 juicers), “raw water” startups may be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist – at least in Silicon Valley. Real water solutions often come in the form of investment in public utility infrastructure, not $US37 jugs.

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