Raw water—is it the ultimate thirst quencher or a health risk? Put simply, raw water is untreated and unfiltered spring water. The trend traces its beginnings to Silicon Valley, but it is spreading. As people eschew tap water for various reasons and look for "healthier" sources, they’re gravitating to bottled raw water. Is it healthy, or are there risks inherent in untreated water? As the demand increases (along with the price), it’s growing increasingly important to weigh the pros and cons.

What is raw water?

This trend merely refers to untreated water. If you visit the mountains, cup your hands, and use them to drink from a stream, you’re drinking what people on the cutting edge now dub “raw water.” Before taps and bottled water plants, everyone drank raw water. Coinciding with the raw food movement, this movement has inspired various companies to bottle raw water and sell it to consumers looking for purity—water free from modern chemicals and processing. Supporters of the movement believe it is a healthy alternative to tap water and filtered bottled water. Types of water considered raw include rainwater, groundwater, water from lakes and streams, and water derived from infiltration wells.

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Why do people want to drink raw water?

Many people have gravitated to the raw water movement because they believe it is a healthy alternative to tap water and is better for the environment than processed bottled water. Some of these people drink it because of its high mineral content; they believe it may contain minerals like copper, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, depending on the source. Whereas chemicals like fluoride and chlorine are added to tap water, bottlers of raw water add none of these.

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What does it taste like?

Many supporters of the raw water movement enjoy the taste of this untreated option. People report it has a more subtlety sweet taste than tap water. They also describe it as fresher and, consequently, more refreshing than regular tap water. This is all anecdotal, however; there are not currently any studies that suggest that raw water tastes better than tap water or filtered bottled water.

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Where does raw water come from?

The recent trend for raw water has its origins in the Western U.S. and has grown in popularity in states like California and Oregon. Not surprisingly, many bottlers of raw water obtain their contents from mountainous areas of these two states. Some of it is also bottled in Maine and Colorado. However, as the demand increases, bottlers are searching for other optimum sources of fresh drinking water.

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What are the dangers of raw water?

The dangers of raw water are potentially quite serious. Raw water is unfiltered; this means it is bottled at the source with no treatment. If there are dangerous pathogens and bacteria in the source water, they can wind up in the bottle. Animal feces, urine, pesticides, and chemicals can also wind up in this water. Drinking untreated water can cause sickness if dangerous pathogens are present.

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What pathogens might be in raw water?

Some of the dangerous pathogens that could be lurking in raw bottled water include parasites like Crytosporidium and Giardia. Viruses like norovirus and rotavirus may also remain, as can bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. These pathogens can cause severe diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and fever. They can even lead to death, particularly among the elderly and very young children. Around the world, drinking unfiltered water has led to deadly cholera outbreaks and other diseases that spread easily through water.

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Tap water and chemicals

Many people worry about tap water and the chemicals it contains. Water treatment plants do add chemicals like fluoride and chlorine, but generally in very small amounts. The Centers for Disease Control say these chemicals do not pose a threat to health when they occur in these quantities. Even so, supporters of the raw water movement want to limit their exposure to these chemicals and express concern about the drugs or other chemicals that may inadvertently wind up in tap water.

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Tap water and infrastructure

Critics of tap water are also concerned about the aging infrastructure and delivery of tap water. Old pipes, for instance, could be leeching toxic material into the water as it flows from the reservoirs to the sink. Many point to the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the crumbling infrastructure that has impacted the safety of tap water there.

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Safety of tap water

According to the Centers for Disease Control, tap water in the U.S., overall, is some of the safest drinking water in the world. The United States Environmental Agency sets legal limits for contaminants that can be present in tap water. The EPA also maintains water-testing schedules and mandates the various regulations water systems have to follow to be deemed safe. According to experts, drinking tap water in developed countries with these laws will rarely cause an acute health problem.

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Tips for Drinking Raw Water

If you do wish to drink raw water, you should note that it is expensive. A liter in Silicon Valley might run upwards of $35. A gallon may run as high as $65. In spite of their luxury status, consumers should know the risks and take steps to determine from where their water comes. Research the companies you purchase from and get to know their water sources. Typically, it’s best to drink raw water from a deep source to avoid common surface contaminants like pesticides and animal feces.

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