Why People Are Drinking 'Raw Water' (But Probably Shouldn't)

Water running from a faucet.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Would you like your water sparkling, from the tap or hauled out of an unsterilized river upstate? For proponents of the expensive new drinking trend known as "raw water," the choice is as clear as a Poland Spring.

According to a New York Times article published last week, a growing number of American hydration connoisseurs are turning off their taps and switching to unfiltered, untreated water from natural sources, shelling out up to $36.99 for a 2.5-gallon jug of the "raw" stuff.

While any individual with access to groundwater could ostensibly obtain their own supply, specialty raw water companies are seeing their products fly off store shelves (primarily in Silicon Valley, the Times noted), while tens of millions of dollars in venture capital flows back in.

Why? Isn't raw water just water — only less regulated? According to the Times, part of the movement's success may come from that very "off the grid" appeal: Raw water passes through no federal or municipal pipes, contains no additives (such as fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral typically added to tap water to fight tooth decay), and generally receives no filtration, ensuring every bottle remains as mineral-rich as Mother Nature intended. [Drinking Water Database: Put in Your ZIP Code and Find Out What's in Your Water]

Unfortunately, Mother Nature sometimes intends to give you an unpleasant case of diarrhea instead. Even America's most pristine-looking springs can harbor natural contaminants that make drinking their waters a sickly mistake, said Vince Hill, chief of the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Without an intimate knowledge of where your water comes from, it's hard to say what's in it and who handles it on its journey from spring to bottle — this is why water gets filtered in the first place, Hill said, and why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces strict quality guidelines on America's public water providers.

Something in the water

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contaminated drinking water is one of the most dangerous preventable health risks the world faces. "Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio," the WHO says, adding that contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrheal deaths around the world each year.

The United States' public drinking water is among the safest in the world, according to the CDC, thanks in part to a multistep purification process that includes filtration, sedimentation (a process by which heavy particles of dirt are separated out) and disinfection. Cities and states have their own specific protocols for cleaning public drinking water depending on the water source they draw from, Hill said, but all of them follow one set of strict EPA guidelines aimed at eradicating 90 well-known water contaminants.

"There are many sources of water contamination, and some of those sources are naturally occurring," Hill told Live Science. "Spring water and mountain stream water may look pure, but it can be contaminated with things like bacteria and viruses, parasites and other contaminants that you can't see."

Chemicals like arsenic and radon, which occur naturally in soil and rocks but can be poisonous in large enough doses, can easily seep into groundwater without much indication, Hill said. Animals, meanwhile, pose their own risks: Parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium, two of the most common causes of waterborne diseases in the United States, easily spread from animal feces into natural water sources. Once ingested by humans, these parasites lead to nasty diarrheal diseases, the CDC says.

For this reason, the agency recommends that all backcountry water (sourced from a spring or otherwise) be properly filtered, disinfected or boiled before consumption.

"We recommend filtering and disinfecting [spring water] to make it safe," Hill said. "Just because you're in a natural area doesn't mean there aren't bacterial pathogens in the water that you just can't see."

And while some raw-water purists "contend that the wrong kind of filtration removes beneficial minerals … [and] kills healthful bacteria," the Times reported, Hill does not think this argument holds water.

"The basic benefit of drinking water is hydration — that's how it benefits our bodies, improving our mental process and bodily functions," Hill said. "There's not much data on whether water helps provide microbes for digestion and things like that. What we do think about when we think about microbes in water [are] germs that could cause diseases. That's why we talk about treating water, filtering water, disinfecting water to make it safer — the data we do have is more about the disease-causing effects of microbes in our water." 

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.