The new year is bubbling with numerous reports about “raw water.” Enthusiasts are flocking to outlets — in Oregon, Maine, San Diego, San Francisco, and the Silicon Valley — for unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized H2O from springs. They’re paying dearly, for example $36.99 for a 2.5-gallon glass orb of “off the grid” Live Water from a West Coast vendor.
Devotees insist “raw water” tastes better. They contend it’s healthier when free of chemicals, like purifying chlorine and tooth- and bone-protecting fluoride, and replete with “probiotics,” bacteria and microscopic life such as algae that they claim are beneficial.
Such claims fly in the face of at least a century of public health experience and progress, a period in which science-based hygiene has helped to rid the nation of epidemics due to water-borne bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and hepatitis A no longer flourish in water supplies, killing thousands annually as these banes once did. It goes without a thought for most Americans that they can turn the spigot at home or the office, drink freely and deeply and not end up getting deathly ill — risks that may be posed by “raw” water.
Outbreaks still occur, such as the 1993 incident in Milwaukee in which 400,000 people were sickened and almost 70 died due to infection with the water-borne, chlorine-resistant parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. But neither worry about such rare instances nor evidence or science may be the well springs for the latest water rage.
Experts have long skirmished with conspiracy theorists over fluoridation, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes is recommended by leading health groups like the American Dental Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. Public Health Service, and World Health Organization. Adding tiny amounts of the natural mineral to public water supplies, health experts say, has helped to slash one of the most common woes for youngsters’ health: tooth decay.
Fluoride and chlorine both, however, have provoked extreme opposition from the fringes, left and right, with some of those groups apparently swaying players in the wealthy, back-to-basics and back-to-nature crowd in the Silicon Valley. West Coast moguls can be zany and fanatical about experimenting to see how technology might boost their health and longevity, and besides guzzling risky “raw water” pumped from springs, some are spending thousands of dollars to sip on supplies from evaporative systems that pull water from the air.
Although satirists on social media, in particular, may be having a field day mocking “raw water” faddists, it also should be noted that consumers in this country — despite the billions of tax dollars spent on the U.S. infrastructure — fork out $10 billion annually on bottled water.
The packaging for bottled water is wasteful and damaging to the environment. Consider, too, that some sellers are draining precious ground supplies in drought-stricken areas, or bringing perfectly ordinary water in from vast distances. The dubiousness of the demand for water that comes from anywhere besides the tap becomes even clearer in spot tests that show that most people, despite their complaints, can’t taste differences or tell the source of their local supplies (which, by the way, must meet national quality and safety standards).
But hype about water isn’t limited just to its sourcing: The data-oriented web site FiveThirtyEight deserves credit for calling out New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady for his much promoted and extreme assertions on hydration.
It is important to drink appropriate amounts of water, especially during exercise. But Brady, as part of the lucrative fitness brand he’s building, tells his followers they can emulate his prodigious athletic success by drinking each day the equivalent to half their body weight (in ounces). He weighs 225 pounds, so he says he aims to drink at minimum 112 ounces of liquid — which is almost the amount of Diet Coke that President Trump reportedly gulps down each day.
POTUS’ intake is hardly healthful, and FiveThirtyEight terms Brady’s recommendation as risky, potentially leading to health woes (including figuring how to find restrooms all the time). The site adds that Brady fuels common sense concerns by promoting his diet and exercise regimens, as well as branded electrolyte and supplement products. Is this all-star athlete aiming to be the Gwyneth Paltrow-GOOP line for men?
In my practice, I see the significant harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the huge value in all of us getting and following clear, plain, science- and evidence-based information about our health needs, including about what we eat and drink. Here’s hoping that football fans will wonder if Brady took too many head hits and will quickly dismiss his weird health views out of hand.
It’s too easy, meantime, to take for granted the importance of safe, clean water to our health and very being — and crises like the terrible lead-tainted supplies in Flint, Mich., should remind us of the national need for not only vigilance but the constant need for maintaining and upgrading our supply and its infrastructure. We can’t be distracted by fads, nor lulled by spending extra at the grocery store or elsewhere for water that we just feel is safer or tastier. We need strong air, water, and other environmental regulators, including a federal Environmental Protection Agency that makes evidence-based policy free of partisan politics and with public integrity. We need to stay atop our elected officials, including those in small and obscure water districts, to let them know that pure potable water isn’t a luxury, it’s an American must. We’re sunk without it.