Why ‘Raw Water’ May Be a Raw Deal

The healthful claims are spurious at best, dangerous at worst.



Photo by: LazingBee


Have you heard about the “raw water” trend? The rush to drink spring water that has not been treated, filtered or sterilized — marketed by several companies as a healthy, natural, eco-friendly “off-the-grid” alternative to tap water — has gotten a lot of attention of late (including this piece in the New York Times).

“The earth constantly offers the purest substance on the planet as spring water,” contends one such purveyor of pricey, refillable-glass-bottled, untreated H2O, Live Water, on its promotional website. “We celebrate this ancient life source that humanity flourished from, since the beginning of our existance [sic]. We trust it's perfect just the way it is.”

The Oregon-based company says its “raw spring water” contains probiotics that will heal everything from anxiety and fatigue to weight gain and “countless other ailments.”

Competitor Tournaline Spring, in Maine, meanwhile, calls its untreated “sacred spring water” a “flawless diamond.”

“You can feel good knowing that you are consciously supporting a better way to drink water,” it promises.

Can you? Food safety expert Jennifer J. Quinlan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, says the healthful claims these companies making are spurious at best and dangerous at worst.

Drinking “raw water” is generally a bad idea, she says, because, while the purported health benefits are unproven, the contamination risks are real.

“Unprocessed water could be contaminated with E. coli, Giardia or a range of viruses just to name a few of the potential dangers,” Quinlan notes. “Generally the risk with consumption of these types of pathogens is gastroenteritis (diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration). This can range from mild, moderate to severe depending upon what and how much is consumed and who is consuming it.”

Preventing illness is why developed countries treat and have standards for drinking water, Quinlan says, adding that the risks from unprocessed water are “not ‘constant,’” but rather "sporadic."

“They occur occasionally and can cause severe illness,” she says. So just because people say they drink it all the time without a problem does not guarantee that others won’t get sick from it.

“We can't predict when an otherwise seemingly clean source of water is going to be sporadically contaminated by a pathogenic environmental bacteria or parasite, so individuals consuming this should understand that they are taking a risk that does not have proven scientific benefits,” she says.

The risks of drinking unfiltered, untreated water are bad enough for healthy adults, but for children, older adults, diabetics and people who are immuno-compromised, the consequences of gastrointestinal illnesses may be severe or even deadly, Quinlan warns.

In other words, raw water — at any price — may be an especially raw deal.

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