Like consuming the meal substitute Soylent or kale, drinking raw water has become a fad.
Proponents of the practice have yet to settle on exactly what raw water is, but the New York Times recently reported that they can agree that “the wrong kind of filtration removes beneficial minerals.” Raw water also contains what proponents consider “healthful bacteria,” marketed widely now as “probiotics.”
Despite these proclaimed benefits, Lindsey Bever, writing in The Washington Post, exposes the obvious downside to drinking water that still has bacteria in it. “By shunning recommended water safety practices, experts warn, raw water purveyors may also be selling things you don’t want to drink — dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites that can make you sick.”
By convincing people to drink untreated water, the proponents of the raw water craze are threatening to undo one of the great public health and sanitation achievements in U.S. history — with a significant risk to public health.
In 1832, New York City was hit by a terrible cholera epidemic. While nobody quite understood it at the time, the disease was waterborne. New Yorkers did see how improving their water system might help prevent future suffering, however. So they built the Croton Aqueduct, a massive, man-made water-distribution system to bring fresh water in from lesser-developed land to the north. Finished in 1842, it was one of the largest public works projects of that age.
As industrialization progressed and clean water became harder to find, cities across the country followed New York’s example and began to build facilities where they could filter and purify their local water supplies. These efforts were absolutely essential to promoting growth because the waterborne diseases, frequently contracted by the poorest people, also threatened everyone else in the city.
Starting during the late 19th century, water utilities softened and purified the water to make sure it would be safe for everyone to drink. Denver, one of the first cities to experiment with water purification, started in 1872. Over the next few decades, as these efforts spread to other cities, methods improved and the quality of water improved with it, creating what historian Eric Rauchway calls “one of the great public health successes of all time.”
Besides disease, the other water-related problem facing America’s city-dwellers was pollution. It came not just from people settling near the coastlines of rivers or oceans, but also from the refuse of industrialization like slag from coal mines or waste from tanning plants that accompanied U.S. economic growth from the early 19th century onward. In the post-Civil War years, as industrial facilities spread across the country, water pollution grew decidedly worse when U.S. manufacturers and mining companies used nearby waterways as sewers.
With the Clean Water Act of 1972 still a century in the future, cities needed water that was at least clean enough to drink. Filtering the water supply if for no other reason than to make pollutants less visible is what made water drinkable, and every city in the country needed to have drinkable water to continue urban growth and prosperity.
These public health achievements went from unquestioned triumphs to expected public services. But the more unscrupulous players in the current organic and natural food movement takes advantage of consumers’ ignorance of the actual process by which food is made in a way that threatens this achievement. Producers labor to convince us that our butter comes from happy cows or that our chickens had plenty of room to roam before they died to become our dinner, because they understand that Americans have come to believe that natural, less-processed food is healthier and to fear and reject once-standard processing practices.
Water-treatment plants fit into this picture because few people ever see them or understand how they work, making it easy to fear these operations. During the Cold War, anti-communists rallied against adding fluoride to public water supplies to prevent tooth decay because it was somehow un-American. In recent years, the anti-fluoride argument has moved from the right to the left, where people needlessly obsess over the fact that fluoride is a remnant of the nuclear-bomb-making process to scare people about the safety of their water. Other misguided complaints about tap water include that it is recycled from the toilet or that it contains the remnants of birth-control drugs.
The result of these fears and conspiracy theories has been the “raw water” movement, aided and abetted by marketing campaigns that have pounced on these concerns and Americans’ desire for natural products. To demonstrate that their water is better than tap water or ordinary spring water, raw water companies trumpet the pristine conditions where they acquire their product. According to Live Water, an Oregon raw water company, “Opal spring where we source our water is from an ancient aquifer that we have extensively tested and has shown no harmful contamination what so ever.”
Like those happy cows and free-range chickens, this pastoral mythologizing is nothing but marketing.
Whether America’s fear of chemicals revolves around its food or its water, the stress we feel over what we eat or drink is the result of many people’s unwillingness to accept that there is an acceptable threshold level for consuming substances that might do us harm. Arsenic, for example, is a potentially deadly poison that occurs naturally in many minerals in tiny quantities. You don’t want to seek it out, but you can’t entirely avoid it either.
In fact, arsenic is one of the many naturally occurring substances that you might end up consuming if you, like some raw water aficionados, decide to “trespass on private land, at night, to harvest from secret springs.” Turn your back on the technological achievements of urban society, particularly to consume water from springs that you haven’t tested, and you risk contracting conditions that modern sanitation effectively eliminated in the United States a century ago.
The raw water industry is designed to give selfish tech millionaires an illusion of control over the natural world based upon the same deceptive marketing that has made expensive and untested probiotic supplements popular. To forget the scourge of waterborne diseases in the past is a threat to the lives and health of the people doing that forgetting.
It also, dangerously, threatens the lives of others by weakening the social contract that prevents waterborne diseases for the less fortunate, people who have zero interest in paying huge sums for “raw water” but who will bear the cost of this movement. The raw water push represents a first step toward privatizing what the United Nations has explicitly recognized as a human right — access to clean water and sanitation.
The very existence of the market for raw water stands counter to that idea. When the rich willingly pay a premium for water, the rationale for keeping the water supply of ordinary people clean and inexpensive will eventually disappear, which could create a public health nightmare.