Healthy Outlook: This potentially deadly trend is not one you want to try

Unfiltered, untreated 'raw' water could have fatal consequences

There aren’t many health trends I’m willing to pooh-pooh without trying for myself, but I’ve found one.

One of the latest “health” trends is potentially deadly and, reasonably, it has demanded the attention of health professionals nationwide.

“Raw” water is unfiltered, untreated “natural” water from springs, rivers, rain and other such sources. Proponents claim it offers minerals and microbes that are important for gut health but that are removed from treated water.

They also claim that it doesn’t contain fluoride (one brand’s website touts the less popular “flouride” spelling), or any other additives they say are harmful. They also say it tastes better.

Now, for all the reasons you shouldn’t drink “raw” water:

Sonia Jordan, preparedness and epidemiology coordinator with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said though it can’t be predicted with 100 percent certainty, there is a big risk that unfiltered, untreated water contains “things that will get you sick quickly and make you pretty miserable.”

Some of those things are salmonella, cryptosporidiosis and campylobacter. These are pathogens that Jordan said the county tracks, but there’s no way of knowing what’s in untreated water, and if you’re exposed, it can cause you a lot of problems. There’s also the risk of norovirus, rotavirus and E. coli, she said.

On an equally gross note, anything that’s on the land could get into the water — “fecal matter from animals or potentially even humans, chemicals, pollutants, things that corporations use, even things that just people use in fertilizer,” Jordan said. (Remember that Topeka sewage leak in 2015?)

“In my job I interview a lot of people who are sick with diarrheal illnesses, and it’s not pleasant. It’s not something that you want to risk,” she said.

Jordan noted that tainted water can also cause nausea and vomiting. The illnesses it spurs can also be fatal for young children, the elderly and anyone who is immunocompromised.

Sonia Jordan, preparedness and epidemiology coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department

“From my perspective and from the health department perspective, I can pretty emphatically say that we are against drinking untreated water,” Jordan said.

She said there is an important thing to remember when it comes to water safety.

“We don’t have the capacity as humans to look at water and know if it’s safe or not,” she said. “Water can be completely clear and clean and very pure-looking, but that is unfortunately not sufficient for us to know if it’s safe. It could have a lot of bacteria or parasites that just aren’t visible to the naked eye.”

As far as fluoride goes, Jordan said there is a pretty sound scientific base that in the levels we put into our city water, it doesn’t really cause any harm, and it is actually very beneficial for oral and dental health.

“There’s a lot of evidence that it does good, and there’s really not very much evidence that it’s harmful,” she said.

This trend bucks one of the most significant, impactful achievements in the history of public health. In my view, it is a sad symptom of privilege that some people are making an active choice to pay exorbitant amounts of money (e.g., $36 for a dozen 1-liter bottles) to drink water that billions of people worldwide wish they had the opportunity to avoid.

“Other people who don’t have access to safe water, they don’t have the option of opting out,” Jordan said. “They automatically don’t have access, and I think a lot of them would want to opt in if they could.”

None of the grocery stores in town that I called said they carry raw water — in fact, they didn’t seem to know what I was talking about when I asked. I hope they don’t start stocking it.

If your main water source is a well, the health department can test that water and make sure it’s safe to drink, Jordan said. There are also some home filtration systems available to ensure your water is safe.

If you want a healthy gut environment, take a probiotic, eat some yogurt or drink some kombucha. If you’re really concerned about what’s in tap water, drink a standard, filtered bottled water.

Don’t buy into this ridiculous fad, which hopefully won’t endanger too many lives before it passes.