"The problem with the dangerous 'raw water' trend"

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Raw water is the latest health trend to sweep the globe. Here, Stylist’s digital features editor Sarah Biddlecombe talks to international charity WaterAid about what it involves - and why it’s so dangerous.

A few weeks ago, something curious started happening on my social media feeds. Alongside the usual images of food, birthday drinks and engagement rings (increasingly common now that I’m edging towards my 30th birthday), I started noticing bottles and glasses of water. People had started sharing links to news articles and think pieces about a bizarre new trend: “raw water”.

Raw water, put simply, refers to water that has been collected from wild springs and left untreated. The trend taps into the “water conscious movement”, and those who drink it believe it to be more beneficial than traditional tap water. A New York Times article pinpointed “sophisticated marketing, cultural cachet, millions of dollars in funding and influential supporters from Silicon Valley” as helping to get the movement off the ground. And indeed, raw water is costly, with litre bottles reportedly retailing for around £4.

However, raw water is one of the more dangerous trends to emerge in recent years, with charity WaterAid issuing a statement warning consumers that it may contain “amoebic dysentery, giardia, and other diarrhoea-causing illnesses, as well as viruses and animal faeces. Contamination may come from the source, or during collection, transport or storage.”

Raw water may contain “amoebic dysentery, giardia, and other diarrhoea-causing illnesses, as well as viruses and animal faeces.”

It is these (severe) health risks that worry me and others I have spoken to: are we really going to turn our backs on the immense privilege of having readily available tap water in favour of a ridiculously pricey, potentially dangerous “health” trend? Especially when so many people around the world die every day because they can’t access that which we so often take for granted?

Here are some sobering statistics to consider: if everyone, everywhere had clean water, the number of diarrhoeal deaths would be cut by a third. Currently, diarrhoea caused by dirty water or poor sanitation kills one child under five every two minutes

As WaterAid points out in its statement: “Some 2.1 billion people in the world cannot turn on a tap at home to access a safely-managed water supply, and 844 million people don’t even have access to a basic water source – like a deep, protected well – close to home. The diseases found in dirty water can kill. 

“The United Nations has a goal of ensuring everyone in the world has access to a safely-managed source of water by 2030; ‘raw’ water does not fit that definition.”

To find out more about the trend, spoke to Vincent Casey, the senior water, sanitation and hygiene manager at WaterAid. 

“The United Nations has a goal of ensuring everyone in the world has access to a safely-managed source of water by 2030; ‘raw’ water does not fit that definition.”

What is raw water?

Essentially, raw water is untreated water. This means that it hasn’t gone through any of the processes to remove harmful contaminants, like pathogens that can kill, or chemicals that can have a detrimental impact on human health. These could include petroleum, benzene, dry cleaning solvents, PCBs and high levels of nitrates from fertilisers.

Treated water, if you are lucky enough to have it, is a great thing: it’s expensive and complicated to provide, but it protects you from potentially fatal diseases. In most developed countries there are standards to which tap water should be treated, and that’s how tap water in developed countries is different from raw water.

Why are people drinking raw water?

Probably because of a lack of confidence in piped water, due to incidents such as the Flint Water crisis. Some water treatment processes like reverse osmosis, which is used in California, remove all naturally occurring minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium, so perhaps some people are worried about that. However, all those minerals can be obtained by eating a balanced diet, so any perceived ‘benefits’ would be greatly outweighed by the risks posed by the potential presence of extremely harmful contaminants in raw water.

There is also a camp that believes fluoride - which is often added to water to help protect our teeth - is dangerous even at very low levels. According to the World Health Organisation, it is not harmful at the very low levels it is found in treated tap water and ironically, depending on where you live, raw untreated water could contain much higher, potentially harmful levels of fluoride.

One in nine of the world’s population do not have clean drinking water, with many having to fetch their water from ponds or by digging a hole in the ground. This puts them at daily risk of serious disease. Being able to turn on a tap and drink treated water protects us from the diseases that used to kill previous generations in the developed world, and still kill hundreds of thousands in the developing world who don’t have clean water.

For more information, visit WaterAid.

Images: Joel Filipe, Diego, iStock