Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My daughter has been talking about the merits of "raw water" -- and the perils of regular tap water. Could it be that people are really drinking non-sterilized or treated water? Isn't that dangerous?

Dear Reader: Thanks to a recent feature story in The New York Times about several companies in the United States that are selling so-called raw water, there's now a national conversation about this trend. The water referred to in the story is untreated, unfiltered and unsterilized. The purveyors claim it is bottled in the exact state that it emerges from certain springs, and attach all sorts of health claims to their products.

While these companies say that the water they sell is safe for consumption (it turns out that one of these vendors, who charges upward of $20 per gallon, is actually drawing from the very same aquifer that furnishes part of Oregon with tap water at a fraction of the cost), the idea that people would seek out so-called natural water is alarming.

The truth is that securing clean drinking water has been one of the great challenges throughout history. Untreated water can contain everything from parasites, viruses and bacteria to naturally occurring chemicals like arsenic. And while municipal drinking water certainly has its own share of black eyes, as the scandal in Flint, Michigan, has most recently illustrated, the idea that spring water is automatically safe to drink is naive and dangerous.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drinking untreated water puts you at risk for any number of pathogens such as E. coli, hepatitis A, Shigella, giardia and norovirus, to name just a few. Diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio are all water-borne illnesses. Add in wild card pollutants like pesticides, farm waste runoff, carcinogenic compounds and leakage or even spillage from septic tanks -- all of which can leach into the ground miles upstream of a seemingly pristine spring -- and drinking "raw" water can become a genuine health risk.

Clean water is an international health issue. In developing nations, water contaminated with pathogens and pollutants accounts for 80 percent of all disease. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from gastrointestinal illness associated with the lack of potable water. As any experienced backpacker will attest, drinking unfiltered, untreated or unsterilized water is a foolhardy gamble that can result in grave health consequences.

This isn't to say that public water supplies are perfect. According to a report issued by scientists with the National Resources Defense Council last year, the aging municipal infrastructure in the U.S. is taking a toll on water safety. Violations of the landmark Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 range from inadequate testing and reporting to the presence of a host of contaminants in community water systems.

Still, in our opinion the so-called raw water movement is misguided. While some natural sources may indeed be perfectly safe, the health risks of drinking untested water from a spring or pond far outweigh the chances you take at your kitchen faucet.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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