- People in San Francisco are spending upwards of $US60 for a 2.5 gallon glass jug of “fresh, live spring water.”
- The water isn’t filtered or treated, which means it could harbour microbial viruses and bacteria that cause disease and deadly diarrhoea.
- American tap water isn’t perfectly clean, but it’s tested to stricter health standards than bottled water.
The founders of a company called Live Water, which sells unfiltered, untreated water in glass containers, want customers to believe that tap water is just too “dead.”
FounderMukhande Singh told the The New York Times that those who drink the regulated H2O that comes out of kitchen taps, public water fountains, and garden hoses are “drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them.”
In San Francisco, his idea has gathered quite a following: the water is regularly sold out in grocery stores and people are spending more than $US1 per glass to the drink water that’s never been treated.
The company warns consumers on its site: “Consult your health care provider before making a decision to switch your drinking water source.” But food safety experts tell Business Insider it’s a terrible idea to drink untreated water.
Why can unfiltered water be dangerous?
There are billions of people around the world living a “raw” water lifestyle right now. And it’s not very glamorous.
Chemicals like lead, microbes from faeces (both animal and human), pesticide runoff, and underground waste are just some of the global threats to clean drinking water.
The US water system isn’t perfect. A 2009 New York Times investigation found there was enough arsenic in the water in some parts of Texas, Arizona and Nevada to contribute to cancer.
But American drinking water does pretty well when stacked up against other countries where citizens might drink from less-than-ideally-filtered sources. The World Health Organisation says dirty drinking water kills half a million people every year, and at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces.
Guzzling from fresh mountain streams won’t solve these problems. Clear mountain sources can infect hikers with the parasite Giardia, while another tiny, one-celled parasite called cryptosporidia can be deadly for people with compromised immune systems, and cause weeks of watery diarrhoea for everyone else. Cryptospordium can infect a person even if they ingest a single bacterium.
How the US treats water
In the US, The Environmental Protection Agency is required to enforce The Safe Drinking Water Act. Passed in 1974, the federal law regulates over 90 contaminants in tap water. Most big cities are constantly monitoring their water supplies. In New York City in 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection tested more than 51,500 water samples.
Live Water says it tested a few of its own samples from its spring source in Oregon. Those vials came back negative for Legionella and other illness-causing contaminants, but the tests the company used were not performed up to federal regulatory compliance standards. Singh and his company also tout the health benefits of their spring water, but the single scientific research paper that they cite isn’t about drinking water at all: it refers to the healing effects of spring water for rabbit wounds.
The Live Water team also says that their water is infused with some good stuff that tap water doesn’t have. “Sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are the four primary electrolytes that maintain the body’s fluid balance. LIVE WATER is abundant in each,” the company writes on its website.
Physicians who’ve studied the mineral content in tap water in 21 major cities across North America say most of our tap water already has a healthy amount of calcium, magnesium and sodium. In many locations, tap water contains enough to provide up to 8% of a person’s daily dietary reference intake, if they’re well hydrated.
Live Water did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Why is there fluoride in tap water?
The raw water evangelists told The Times that fluoride in tap water is “a mind-control drug that has no benefit to our dental health.”
There’s no evidence to support this. But fluoride, which is often naturally present at low levels in water, has been added in to some tap water for decades to help prevent cavities. The EPA regulates these levels to make sure the concentrations aren’t too high. (Kids under 8 can get too much fluoride, which can cause some cosmetic discoloration of teeth.)
What about lead?
The complex web of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and groundwater sources that people in the US draw on to drink from isn’t perfect. What happened in Flint, Michigan in 2014 is a textbook example of water resource management gone wrong.
The city switched its main water source from the Detroit to the Flint River to save some money. Lead that started leaking into the drinking supply from the pipes wasn’t properly treated, and smelly, coloured water flowed into homes. According to The Atlantic, there has been both a spike in miscarriages and drop in birth rates in Flint since then.
Marc Edwards, one of the first engineers who studied the water problem in Flint, says there’s no way to be completely sure you’ll never get sick from drinking water: “It is not possible to achieve zero health risk, with any water at all,” he wrote Business Insider in an email. But he says “most cities provide tap water to standards that pose very little health risk at reasonable cost.”
There are a few things everyone can do to make sure that the water they’re drinking is up to par. There’s an annual drinking water report from the EPA, as well as an independent tap water database available from the Environmental Working Group. If you’re worried about how clean your water might be, you can use an NSF/ANSI-approved filter at home.
But for some Americans, indulging in unregulated water may be about more than staying hydrated and healthy. Edwards believes they might really be seeking out some kind of mystical “glacial purity” or a hidden “fountain of youth,” while shunning what they perceive as more “poisoned water.”
At that point, he says, a person’s urge to avoid the tap is simply “beyond the ability of science to quantify.”
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