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Raw Water Is the Latest Organic Fad—But Is It Safe?: Public Health Watch

JAN 10, 2018 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
Water is life, as the old saying goes.

But is so-called “raw water” death? That is the question, as the demand for “all-natural” and “organic” products hits the water supply—literally.

According to a report published online on January 3 by Time, consumer interest in water that hasn’t been “treated, filtered, or processed in any way” is on the rise, and there are concerns that its consumption could result in the next public health crisis. Indeed, while those exploring the option arguably have legitimate concerns about the safety of the US water supply—given the Legionnaires' outbreak last year in Flint, Michigan—and the long-term health effects of chlorination and exposure to fluoride found in tap water, untreated water could expose drinkers to pathogens that were largely eradicated from the water supply long ago.

“The United States has one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world,” reads a statement on the US Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) water-borne diseases website. “Sources of drinking water are subject to contamination and require appropriate treatment to remove disease-causing contaminants. The presence of contaminants in water can lead to adverse health effects, including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders.”

The CDC adds that “infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly,” and those who are immunocompromised are particularly at high risk for illnesses related to water contamination. One example of such an illness is Giardia, which can live in “untreated or improperly treated water from lakes, streams, or wells,” the CDC reports. A study published in the February 2017 issue of the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences suggests that the prevalence of Giardia in the United States is just 0.11%, while the most recent CDC data confirmed nearly 17,000 cases of the water-borne infection in the 50 states and territories in 2011 through 2012.

Notably, the authors of a study of Giardia outbreaks published in the October 2016 issue of the journal Epidemiology and Infection wrote that cases related to contaminated drinking water have been on the decline in the United States since the 1980s, when laws regarding water treatment and disease surveillance were strengthened. Is there a concern that the recent “raw water” trend could reverse this?

The short answer is “yes.” In a harsh—and thus amusing—commentary published on January 4 by Slate, author and science and medicine historian Christine Manganaro, PhD, writes, “The idea that Americans drank abundant pristine water before the industrial age, in the first half of the 19th century and earlier, is not supported by the historical record. There is a reason that everyone including children drank so much hard cider and beer during the 1700s and 1800s: because waterborne illness was prevalent, and alcoholic beverages were safer than many sources of ‘raw water.’ This was especially true in proximity to towns whose water sources and sewage systems were not well differentiated.”

In other words, the latest platform of the “organic-is-always-best” movement might actually run counter to its stated objective of helping all of us live—and consume liquid and/or solid nourishment—more healthfully.

And that’s the raw truth.
 
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous health care-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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