The problem with water, says Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler, is that it is an efficient means of quickly transmitting pathogens.
“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.
Marler says that those who don’t wish to drink centrally treated water have alternate options for making water safe. He says, “It doesn’t necessarily need to be treated with chlorine or fluoride, but there are systems that filter out bacteria, viruses, and protozoans. It’s just common sense.”
More importantly, Dr. Rose, Dr. Bowser, and Marler were skeptical about claims—such as those made by Live Water—about the innate safety of spring water.
“Even in Europe and the U.S. where we have pretty good control over our water and water systems,” Dr. Rose says, “any untreated water carries a risk of microbial infections. Even springs. And what we found is springs, because they’re under pressure, because they come up to the surface, the water moves faster. They can be almost as risky as surface water in terms of contamination. It really depends on how people are protecting the spring, where the water comes from, and what kind of testing they’ve done.”
Live Water claims on its website that, “An analysis for waterborne particulates shows conclusively that Opal Springs [its source in Madras, Oregon] is a ground water source, not influenced by surface water. We test each delivery for harmful bacteria.”
Dr. Rose would like to know more about the testing process. “Have they tested it for Giardia and Cryptosporidium? Have they tested it for viruses? Have they tested it for a whole range of bacteria? Then we could start to actually put a number on the risk.”
Noting that springs are influenced by rain and pressure, Dr. Rose says that proper monitoring would require “a bare minimum” of 18 months of monthly sampling, particularly over a rainy season, to include Giardia and Cryptosporidium samples, as well as screening for viruses.
“With groundwaters, you’re supposed to monitor for viruses because viruses are notorious,” she says.
For Marler, the starting point would be to find out what fecal coliform standard “raw water” producers test to.
“You can then differentiate between what you’re finding in the water,” Marler says. “Are you finding Shigella? E. coli? Salmonella? You can look for all those bacteria, and protozoans, and viruses. But even then, testing is kind of random: Unless you test everything, you’re not testing everything. Water is better than testing hamburger or leafy greens because it’s more ubiquitous, so the pathogens are more likely evenly spread—but not necessarily.”
Dr. Bowser concurs, saying, “With today’s technologies, it is impossible to ‘test in’ quality for water. If the sample size is 0.5 liter and the batch size is 100,000 liters, there is a chance that the contaminant won’t show up in the sample. This is especially true for contaminants like microorganisms that may clump or are not evenly dispersed.”
Marler underlines that it is impossible for companies like Live Water to guarantee the safety of their product. “The idea of selling potentially unfiltered, untreated water to the public—at a higher cost—is in my view problematic from both a health point of view, and from a legal point of view.”
Live Water’s website hosts a disclaimer that acknowledges, “Some people may be more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water than the general population,” and suggests that “immuno-compromised persons such as persons with cancer undergoing chemotherapy, persons who have undergone organ transplants, people with HIV/AIDS or other immune system disorders, some elderly, and infants can be particularly at risk from infections” and should “seek advice about drinking water from their healthcare providers.”
This text appears copied from the 2016 water quality report of the Deschutes Valley Water District (DVWD), in which Live Water’s source spring is located. The DVWD provides direct-to-tap domestic water without filtration to roughly 4,000 locations in Madras, Oregon. The DVWD 2016 report notes that there has been no detectable change to the springs’ flow, temperature, or pH since 1925. The EPA does not require the DVWD to test for all contaminants annually, though a 1996 Oregon Health Division waiver required some tests and schedules of testing. The DVWD report notes that in the testing period, the District tested for 80 contaminants, and found three, all at levels below EPA thresholds.
Marler notes the very existence of a disclaimer on the Live Water website suggests the company understands the possibility that its water could be contaminated.
“A disclaimer like this is no different than disclaimers you see in restaurants,” he says. “From a liability perspective it helps them, but it doesn’t absolve them of liability. If someone brings the water to a class of kindergarteners, and you wind up with 25 kids with E. coli and half of them with kidney failure, yeah, they’ll get sued, and it’s completely unlikely this disclaimer will have any legal merit. The manufacturer is going to be liable for selling a product with a pathogen that can sicken or kill you. That’s also true for a retailer selling the product.”
For Marler, the trendiness of untreated water is similar to the anti-vaccination movement, which he says is grounded in a societal lack of long-term memory. He recalls seeing people ravaged by polio as a child, which few, if any, people in their 20s today would remember.
“Most of us in the United States have good, potable water to consume, so we don’t know anyone who got E. coli from drinking water, or Cryptosporidium, or cholera,” he says. “People imagine there was a time in the world when we ran around drinking out of streams—except they don’t remember that people also died of waterborne diseases. That’s why we have a public water system. We can try to educate the public about deliberately drinking untreated water, but consenting adults can be stupid if they like. When it comes to your child, your pregnant wife, your buddy with cancer, or your grandparents, do not give them raw water. Just don’t.”
Food Quality & Safety magazine emailed Live Water asking about their bacterial testing process, fecal coliform standard, viral and protozoan pathogen testing, and the period and frequency of testing. At press time, they had not sent a response.