Is 'Raw Water' Safe?

Not to mention a waste of your money

This article originally appeared on Greatist.

If you think to yourself, I love to waste money, but I want to literally piss it away, then you're in luck: Companies around Silicon Valley have created the perfect product to help you flush cash down the toilet—raw water!

Enough of this "perfectly-safe-to-drink" water of the 21st century. Raw water is old-school—as in, "You just died of dysentery" old-school. The proponents of raw water praise the fact that the water they're hawking doesn't contain chemicals like chlorine, fluoride or chloramines. Instead, their completely untreated water flows naturally from the earth, full of gut-healthy probiotics. And it comes to you in the most natural way possible—delivered by a guy with a manbun in a painted van. Oh, and it's at least $16 for two and a half gallons. Just like nature intended.

After The New York Times broke the story about the new raw water movement, Live Water (which has a logo that looks like it belongs on the Myspace page of a Phish cover band) has received most of the attention. Probably because their founder, Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn), likes to make odd statements that fall somewhere on the hippie-douche spectrum. Things like, "It stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery" and "Tap water? You're drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them." 

First of all, I wish my water had birth control in it—that would be so much easier. Second, toilet water is safe to drink and often recommended as a source of H20 in emergencies. Sure, you don't want to drink it out of the bowl because your poop contaminates it, but technically you could drink out of the tank and be just fine. One school found their toilets to be cleaner than their drinking fountains, so take that as you will. To be clear, I'm not a toilet-drinking advocate, I just want to illustrate how clean our water generally is.

But Singh isn't the only one singing the praises of raw water. Another big fan is David Evans, aka the founder of Juicero—the company that tried to sell a $400 Wi-Fi-enabled juicer that did nothing but squeeze bags of juice you could easily squeeze yourself. Evans cared so much about getting fresh, untreated water that he and his friends regularly sneaked through private properties to steal stream water under the cover of darkness, according to the Times. It's funny that a man who sold plastic bags of juice would be so fearful of chemicals in his liquids, but then, it's a funny world out there.

It's easy to mock long-haired hippies and juicer gurus, but does raw water have a point? Is this natural water better for us? According to experts: no. More specifically: hell, no.

"Scam," says Robert Graham, MD, of Fresh Med at Physio Logic NYC. "Our municipal water is filtered for a reason. Untreated water may contain bacteria, viruses and parasites.

"Would you ever drink the water in an underdeveloped country? The health effects can range from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to diarrhea, dehydration and death," he says. The bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid and dysentery can thrive in "natural" water, meaning raw water could equal a long trip to the toilet at best—and the hospital at worst. 

Greg Sancoff, a water filtration expert with more than 35 years of experience and the founder of Live Pure, speaks of an unexpected chemical risk from untreated water. "Water contains radon in many areas of the U.S.," he says. "And 25,000 people die each year from radon exposure and consumption." Since raw water isn't treated or tested, you may be ingesting potentially damaging levels of naturally occurring chemicals and bacteria. 

Proponents of raw water insist that their supply comes from pure springs that have no traces of diarrhea-inducing diseases, and they feel that the water's natural probiotics and lack of fluoride outweigh the risk of contamination. Is there any truth to their claims?

Not . . . really. Fluoride in water has long been fodder for conspiracy theorists, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control showed that tooth decay is down in the 70 years since fluoridation started. Plus, the CDC's extensive studies have never found low levels of fluoride to be harmful.

But an article in Harvard Public Health claims that all that extra fluoride might not actually be necessary. Since 1945, when some cities in America began fluoridating their water, cavities have gone down. But they've gone down, almost just as much, in countries with no fluoridation over the same period of time.

The article argues that advantages in dental technology, including fluoride toothpaste, are the real cause of our perfect smiles. Nowadays, the fluoride in the water might be unnecessary. Of course, this does not mean fluoride in the water is dangerous, but it might not be doing a whole lot of good.

As for probiotics, it's true that tap water filters out bad bacteria like giardia, but also takes away less harmful bacteria that could be good for gut flora. Sadly, the probiotics in water won't necessarily help your aching tummy. "Probiotic bacteria generally come from the mammalian gut," says Jeremy Weisz, PhD in marine sciences and associate professor at Linfield College. "Any bacteria that you find in water would not be good at breaking down nutrients that are found in our gut." So raw water basically lets you drink a bunch of extra bacteria just for the fun of it.

There is one surprisingly true statement from this raw water trend. Remember Singh accusing us of drinking "toilet water"? Well, in some parts of the country, that's true! Orange County, California, takes sewer water through a thorough, three-part filtration process, adds back some minerals, and sends it to taps across the county. Technically, people from one of the richest counties in America are drinking toilet water.

But the process the OC uses to recycle water—which involves reverse osmosis with UV—is also probably doing a better job of removing trace contaminants than standard water treatment, which means that weirdly, this water might actually be better in some respects than tap water sourced directly from a reservoir or aquifer.

The program isn't relegated to the residents of the OC, of course. In 2013, 36 states used reclaimed water. Now, a lot of this was wastewater from sinks and showers, as opposed to straight-up sewer liquid, but the idea that the water we drink is less than "pure" isn't crazy.

So, should we schedule our deliveries for raw water now, before the government forces us all to drink from the bowl? No. The idea that we can only drink water from the purest source is egotistical, naive and the very definition of a first-world problem.

Though drought levels in the U.S. are low at the moment, we have to look for ways to conserve water in the long run. And if that means drinking completely safe poop water, I'm all for it. I hope they call it something other than poop water, but I'll stand by it either way. (And in truth, the standards for tap water are much more stringent than most bottled drinking water, so that free Orange County poop water is probably cleaner than those $2 bottles you buy at the grocery store.)

To go one step further, you could always buy a water filter or filtration system to ensure that the water that makes its way to your mouth is free of contaminants like pesticides, copper, mercury and, of course, lead.

Singh might be a little right with his toilet water statement, but other than that, the raw water craze is all wrong. The water is expensive, possibly dangerous, and insulting to people struggling for clean, treated water all over the world. So save yourself the $16 and enjoy the clean water we already have constantly flowing through our homes.

Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.