Water-borne diseases have been one of the leading causes of death globally – especially in developing countries, where access to clean and sanitary water is a large public health and human rights issue.

Just last year, Yemen struggled with one of its worst cholera outbreaks, which is spread by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It was recorded that more than 770,000 people were infected and 2,000 people were dead from the disease, with children as the main victims.

However, on the other side of the world, people are diving into the latest health craze of “raw water” – i.e. water that is unprocessed, unfiltered and unsterilised. Advocates of the trend are willing to pay up to USD9 per gallon for the luxury of consuming water that could contain pesticides, possibly fatal bacteria and animal faeces.

Trending “raw water” craze in the US

The raw water trend – sometimes also known as “water-consciousness movement” – is part of a larger movement that embraces everything “natural” as healthy.

Having been around for years, this movement for pure water is not something new. Its roots lie in the crusade that opposed adding fluoride to public water, in the 1950s, among Americans. Propelled by fake news and rumours, Americans saw danger in the protective measure that was adopted to protect the population from diseases and contamination.

To worsen the situation, the movement is now receiving more attention after companies began bottling and selling the untreated spring water. Thanks to sophisticated marketing, there is a surge of demand for it, resulting in millions of dollars in funding and influential supporters from the Silicon Valley.

Consumers who drank the raw water, touted that it provides benefits, such as a fresher taste, a range of beneficial probiotic bacteria absent in tap water, better skin and the need to drink less water.

According to Mukhande Singh, the founder of Live Water, his water is “real water”, where it expires after a few months.

“If it sits around too long, it’ll turn green. People don’t even realise that because all their water’s dead, so they never see it turn green,” he says.

Singh, at Ukumehame Beach Park, near Lahaina, Hawaii, where he lives. Photo credit: Marco Garcia/The New York Times
Singh, at Ukumehame Beach Park, near Lahaina, Hawaii, where he lives. Photo credit: Marco Garcia/The New York Times

Raw water trend is unsafe, should not be followed

“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,” highlights Singh, who believes that the public-filtered water has been poisoned.

However, Singh’s talk is disturbing and what raw-water supporters see as dangers are important safety measures, comments Dr Donald Hensrud, director of the Healthy Living Programme at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Without water treatment, there’s acute and then chronic risks,” emphasises Dr Hensrud, as untreated water consists of E. coli, viruses, bacteria, carcinogenic compounds, and parasites – such as giardiasis, a parasitic intestinal complaint commonly known as ‘beaver fever’.

“There’s evidence all over the world of this, and the reason we don’t have those conditions is because of our very efficient water treatment,” he adds.

As for the purpose of fluoride, it is added into water supplies to help prevent tooth decay. Though hazardous at high concentrations, it is not harmful at the levels found in drinking water.

“In low quantities, it is scientifically proven that it is beneficial to dental health,” asserts senior water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) advisor at WaterAid, Vincent Casey.

“If a water company or a utility is carrying out its treatment to the right standards, there shouldn’t be instances where these concentrations are going to hazardous levels at all,” he adds.

Still saying ‘no’ to untreated water

While the raw water trend is going on, countries like Malaysia and Singapore discourage the use of untreated water.

In Malaysia, a few cases of leptospirosis and water-borne rotavirus outbreaks have occurred, as the public came into contact with contaminated water. Some of the reasons for such contaminations are faecal contamination, lack of personal hygiene and lack of monitoring of the water quality.

On the other hand, to curb with water shortage and minimise risks, Singapore has incorporated plans to upgrade water treatment facilities for safer recycled water. Though not all traces of pharmaceutical compounds in the water are removed, they are not at levels that are dangerous to the body.

Though it may seem absurd, there are many out there who really believe that raw water benefits the body. However, for those who are concerned about the tap water, “it’s better to invest in a home filtration or testing system than to turn to untreated water,” advises Vince Hill, chief of the CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch.

“If you’ve got the luxury of a treated, piped water supply to your home available, it’s not really a good idea to drink untreated water,” agrees senior WASH advisor Casey. “There are obviously many people in the world who don’t have the luxury,” he adds. MIMS

Read more:

GTFCC: Global coalition aims for a 90% reduction in cholera deaths by 2030
Malaysia’s MOH confirms a water-borne rotavirus outbreak
Leptospirosis in Malaysia: Avoid dining or recreational activities in unsanitary areas and stop littering drains