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According to Science – Ars Technica
Step aside, Juicero—and hold my “raw” water.
Last year, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Doug Evans brought us the Juicero machine, a $400 gadget designed solely to squeeze eight ounces of liquid from proprietary bags of fruits and vegetables, which went for $5 to $8 apiece. Though the cold-pressed juice company initially wrung millions from investors, its profits ran dry last fall after journalists at Bloomberg revealed that the pricy pouch-pressing machine was, in fact, unnecessary. The journalists simply squeezed juice out of the bags by hand.
But this didn’t crush Evans. He immediately plunged into a new—and yet somehow even more dubious—beverage trend: “raw” water.
The term refers to unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized water collected from natural springs. In the ten days following Juicero’s collapse, Evans underwent a cleanse, drinking only raw water from a company called Live Water, according to The New York Times. “I haven’t tasted tap water in a long time,” he told the Times. And Evans isn’t alone; he’s a prominent member of a growing movement to “get off the water grid,” the paper reports.
Members are taking up the unrefined drink due to both concern for the quality of tap water and the perceived benefits of drinking water in a natural state. Raw water enthusiasts are wary of the potential for contaminants in municipal water, such as traces of unfilterable pharmaceuticals and lead from plumbing. Some are concerned by harmless additives in tap water, such as disinfectants and fluoride, which effectively reduces tooth decay. Moreover, many believe that drinking “living” water that’s organically laden with minerals, bacteria, and other “natural” compounds has health benefits, such as boosting “energy” and “peacefulness.”
Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn), founder of Live Water, told the Times that tap water was “dead” water. “Tap water? You’re drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them,” he said. “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.” (Note: There is plenty of data showing that fluoride improves dental health, but none showing water-based mind control.)
Three years ago, Singh began selling raw water collected from Opal Springs in Culver, Oregon, which he claims contains unique probiotics. Consumers in certain areas of California can now sign up for raw water deliveries for as much as $6.40 per gallon.
A few of the concerns shared by Singh and other raw water drinkers are legitimate. Many US cities and areas do struggle with lead in drinking water. (That said, certified filters can greatly reduce lead in contaminated drinking water and lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most hazardous sources of lead in the country, not water.) Also our current water treatment facilities are, indeed, largely incapable of filtering out trace pharmaceuticals from water. But levels of these contaminants in tap water are extremely low and it’s unclear if they pose any risk.
Raw water, on the other hand, clearly poses risks—and its benefits are unproven.
Natural water sources are vulnerable to all manner of natural pathogens. These include any bacteria, viruses, and parasites normally found in water or shed from nearby flora and fauna, such as Legionella and Giardia lamblia. They also can easily pick up environmental contaminants and naturally occurring hazards such as radiation from certain mineral deposits. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has set standards and regulations for 90 different contaminants in tap water, including microorganisms, disinfectants, and radionuclides. And for bottled water, the Food and Drug Administration has set standards and can inspect bottling facilities. But such assurances aren’t in place for scouted spring water.
For its part, Live Water posted on its website a water quality report from an analysis conducted in 2015. The analysis looked at many contaminants but doesn’t appear to cover everything that the EPA monitors. For instance, there’s no mention of testing for pathogens such as Legionella and Giardia.
Live Water did try to identify some bacteria present, though. Through third-party testing, Live Water identified bacteria that it claims are probiotics with health benefits. On its website, Live Water attempts to back up this claim by linking to a study that, according to the raw water company, “prov[es] raw spring water has vast healing abilities.” However, the linked study does no such thing. In the authors’ own words, the study “provided only preliminary data” on the presence of certain nonpathogenic bacteria in water from a spring in Italy. The authors merely speculate that these bacteria may produce beneficial “molecular mediators” that “thus far, remain unknown.”
Additionally, the bacteria isolated from the Italian spring water are a different set than those found in Live Water’s water. The two water samples only have one bacterium in common, Pseudomonas putida, which has no established health benefits. P. putida is a species of soil bacteria well known for degrading organic solvents, such as toluene, which is found in coal tar and petroleum. As such, the species is thought of as a potential tool to clean up contaminated soils (aka, bioremediation).
Live Water also found Pseudomonas oleovorans in its water. This is an environmental bacterium and opportunistic pathogen. Lastly, the company reports unidentified Pseudomonas species and unidentified species in the Acidovorax genus. Without species-level identification, it’s not possible to know what these bacteria may be up to in water. Both genera contain well-known plant-associated bacteria, but Pseudomonas contains well-studied human pathogens, too, such as P. aeruginosa, which is drug resistant and tends to plague patients with cystic fibrosis.
Live Water goes further on its website, adding that “beneficial bacteria are also proven to have abilities to transform harmful bacteria.” This, a reader could infer, suggests that the bacteria present in the raw water may reduce or protect drinkers from bacterial pathogens. But to support that statement, Live Water links to a Wikipedia page about phage therapy, which uses viruses (not bacteria) to combat bacterial infections (phage or bacteriophage are terms for viruses that infect bacteria).
Ars reached out to Live Water and asked about all these issues as well as its water testing, but the company did not immediately respond. If Live Water does get back to us, we’ll update this story.
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