Raw water: The latest freedom issue, or dangerous quackery?

Or both? A few years ago, libertarians made raw milk a freedom of choice issue despite warnings from the CDC and other health officials about the dangers of consuming unpasteurized milk. What if your drink of choice came not out of a cow or goat, but out of the ground? CBS reports on a new trend in beverages called “raw water” — unfiltered, untreated spring water that is free of all human interference. That may not be all it’s free of, however:

A new drinking water trend is sparking some concerns among doctors, as some people are dropping bottled water for natural, untreated spring water, also known as “raw” water.

In a marketing campaign for Live Water, the quest for raw water is cast in a sacred light.

“A surge of energy and peacefulness entered my being,” the video claims.

Not to beat the same joke to death, but it’s likely not the only thing that entered into his being. Water can look crystal clear and even taste refreshing while still containing bacteria or other microbes that cause disease — many of them serious or even fatal. Hikers who live off the land usually take either a sophisticated water filtration system or pills to add to the water once collected. Even in North America, the risks are well known for consuming untreated water.

In the CBS report, the focus is on spring water rather than water exposed to the air. One of the proponents interviewed claims that the water is healthy because it’s 10,000 years old, before man came along and mucked up the environment. However, that argument suffers from two fallacies. First, cryptosporidium, e. coli, and other microbes existed before and apart from Homo sapiens, and its existence in nature is not dependent on human interaction. Second, man’s been around for a while now, and there’s no guarantee that our mucking about hasn’t tampered with this water source even before it started getting tapped for “raw water” now. Frankly, the pitch and the arguments sound a lot less like science and a lot more like a new-age belief system on par with power crystals, but at least power crystals won’t give you e. coli.

The CDC does not yet have a specific paper on “raw water,” but their site does have a section on water consumption from private wells that might apply. They responded to an inquiry from CBS with a warning:

“If you’re not filtering it, if you’re not disinfecting it then you are creating a risk for yourself or anybody you give the water to of diseases and other illnesses that can come from the water,” said Vincent Hill, chief of the CDC Waterborne Disease Prevention branch.

But what about the potential health benefits of unfiltered water? You can get the same benefits by just eating better:

Experts say raw water may contain beneficial minerals but a healthy diet can provide the same health benefits, and it may not be worth the risk of the harmful bacteria and parasites often found in unfiltered water.

So, perhaps drinking “raw water” is not a terribly good idea. Should it be illegal? It’s not now, and not regulated in the manner that milk is. The sudden interest in “raw water” might prompt some attention from lawmakers and regulators, but … should it? If people wish to consume unhealthy food and drink while being fully informed of the consequences, should government intervene? We don’t do that for alcohol, for instance, but we do it for other substances found in nature such as “magic mushrooms” and marijuana. As long as the labels fully inform consumers of the risk and do not make health-related claims that cannot be substantiated, the federal government should refrain from intervening.

Otherwise, I’m with Savannah Guthrie. We have very solid science on the need to treat water before consuming it.