The problem with water, says Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler, is that it is an efficient means of quickly transmitting pathogens.
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“Look at what causes human illness and death after a hurricane, as in Puerto Rico, or an earthquake, as in Haiti, or people living without potable water in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. “Cholera. Those things happen fairly commonly throughout the world. Water is the best mechanism to get those pathogens into your system.”
For that reason, Marler has staunchly opposed the sale of so-called “raw water,” unfiltered water currently trendy among a certain subset of consumers (most notably, as The New York Times and other outlets have reported, Silicon Valley millionaires).
“Some of the really specific risks of untreated water are bacterial, like E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella; viral, like hepatitis A; and protozoan, like Cryptosporidium and Giardia,” Marler says. “In untreated water, there are plenty of risks. No untreated water is without risk. The greater the human and animal populations, the greater the risk of various contamination events.”
There are a variety of companies selling untreated water. The term “Raw Water” was trademarked in 2012 by Maine’s Tourmaline Springs, which sells its water for $2.99 per liter. However, Live Water, a California company that sells untreated spring water under the brand name Fountain of Truth, has become one of the most prominent sellers by virtue of price alone: 2.5 gallons of its water in a custom-made glass carafe sells for $38.49, with refills running at $14.99.
Live Water’s website claims, “The earth constantly offers the purest substance on the planet as spring water. We celebrate this ancient life source that humanity flourished from, since the beginning of our existence. We trust it’s perfect just the way it is.” Its spring provides water, it claims, “from a time when earth [sic] was pristine, and is estimated to have matured below the surface for up to 10,000 years before surfacing.” This water is high in silica, and the company also claims that it is rich in probiotics (though the latter claim has been questioned by critics).
“I have not researched any of these claims and therefore cannot cite specific examples, but in general, I don’t see how the benefits could outweigh the risks,” says Tim Bowser, PhD, food engineer for Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center. “It is very inexpensive to treat water to make it safe to drink by removing constituents that are proven to be harmful, and the benefits [being claimed for untreated water] are not proven, to my knowledge. Many safe and proven sources of minerals, probiotics, silica, and microflora exist in our food supply, so why not consume these?”
Joan B. Rose, PhD, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University, is puzzled by Live Water’s emphasis on the age of the water.
“I don’t see any evidence that water ages and that H2O, when the molecules are older, is healthier,” she says. She acknowledges that in general, the minerals present in spring waters can be good for you.
“But to tell you the truth, the same kind of minerals are found in a variety of foods,” she says. “It just depends on how well you eat, nutritionally.”
Dr. Rose notes that in tests comparing water containing divalent ions like calcium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and silica to “softened water” in which those ions have been removed and replaced with sodium, drinkers of the mineral-rich water showed a lower incidence of heart disease and some other illnesses.
“But that could be just because of the sodium that water softeners put into the water,” Dr. Rose cautions.