‘Raw’ water is the latest health fad that could make you very sick

Click to play video: 'What is ‘raw water’ and why is it potentially dangerous?'
What is ‘raw water’ and why is it potentially dangerous?
WATCH: Raw water is the latest trend that has food and water safety experts on edge – Jan 3, 2018

First it was charcoal-infused juice, then it was unpasteurized milk, now health fanatics are jumping on the “raw” water bandwagon and it has experts worried.

Raw water refers to unfiltered, untreated and unsterilized water that’s collected from a spring or the atmosphere, and proponents believe it’s healthier than tap or bottled water.

The movement is gaining considerable traction in San Francisco, specifically Silicon Valley, where a 2.5-gallon glass jar from Oregon-based Live Water can run up to US$60.99.

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“It has a vaguely mild sweetness, a nice smooth mouthfeel, nothing that overwhelms the flavour profile,” Kevin Freeman, a shift manager at Rainbow Grocery co-op in San Francisco, said to the New York Times. “Bottled water’s controversial. We’ve curtailed our water selection. But this is totally outside that whole realm.”

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The reason bottled and tap water are considered controversial is because health fanatics believe the filtration and sterilization processes they undergo strip it of beneficial bacteria they refer to as “probiotics.” The going attitude is that the fluoride that’s added to tap water, as well as the lead pipes it runs through, compromise its health profile, while bottled water is treated with UV light and ozone gas.

“Tap water? You’re drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them,” Mukhande Singh, founder of Live Water who changed his name from Christopher Sanborn, said to the Times. “Chloramine, and on top of that, they’re putting in fluoride. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it’s a mind-control drug that has no benefit to our dental health.”

In addition to the growing spate of raw water brands, Zero Mass Water out of Arizona has developed a system, called Source, that allows users to pull water from the atmosphere much in the same way that desiccants pull moisture from the air. It costs US$4,500 to install and the company has raised $24 million in venture capital.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Doug Evans (whose Juicero company folded in September) is among the raw water movement’s most vocal supporters, and says he was turned on to it after a 10-day cleanse in which he only drank Live Water. He then collected his own stash — roughly 50 gallons — and sold it at Burning Man last summer.

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“I’m extreme about health, I know, but I’m not alone with this,” he said. “There are a lot of people doing this with me. You never know who you’ll run into at the spring.”

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There’s no doubt that this is part of another health craze that’s linked to an increased belief that all things “natural” are better and healthier for you, and that anything that’s been sterilized is inherently bad.

“Chalk this up to the next fad,” says Patrick Novak, director, vice-president and chief science officer at Caro Analytical Services.

Except this fad could have dire consequences.

“[Water can contain] a host of biological and chemical contaminants, including viruses, bacterium, parasitic entities and heavy metals that could exist in unacceptable concentrations to human health,” he says. “Even if the water is coming from something deemed to be a pure source.”

All bottled water is regulated by Health Canada (in the U.S., it’s the Food and Drug Administration), and the standards include a long list of requirements, including not exceeding lead and bacterial levels, as well as safety standards regarding packaging.

As for the argument that anything deriving from the earth is natural and pure, Novak says it’s a case of drinker beware.

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“If you go to the mountains and find a source of water that’s unhindered, theoretically it would be better for you, but even raw sources could have very high levels of heavy metals because the rock formation contains [metals],” he says. Not to mention that if animals are drinking from the source or using it for any purpose, it could be contaminated with Giardia or Cryptosporidium, microscopic parasites that cause diarrhea.

At the end of the day, a pure source of water is only known if it undergoes investigation and testing.

“Every water system is a living system,” Novak says. “It’s unlikely that without some filtration or treatment, that it would be free of bacteria or biological contaminants to the level that health authorities would deem it safe.”

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