The West Coast has been the breeding ground for many amazing cultural and tech trends of our time. Without a doubt, live water is not one of them.
Live water, also known as raw water, is the term that has emerged to describe water products that have not been treated for the removal of contaminants and impurities. The New York Times recently brought to light the west coast’s mounting appetite for live water and the exorbitant price tag that comes with it. With this extra attention has come a slew of rightful backlash.
Indeed, one need not look any farther than the name of this alarming fad before red flags start popping up. Namely, “live water” begs the question: if your water is alive, then what’s living in it?
The answer to that question could be any number of bacteria, parasites, or viruses that are invisible to the naked eye and can’t be detected through taste or smell. Many of these microbes can be dangerous and potentially fatal if ingested. As many horrified public health and food safety professionals have pointed out in the aftermath of live water’s debut in the national media, untreated water can contain pathogenic E. coli, Giardia, Hepatitis A, cholera, Salmonella and many other infectious agents.
While these diseases may seem a distant and unreal possibility for those of us living in the developed world, many of them used to wreak havoc in the U.S. and continue to do so in parts of the globe that don’t have access to treated water. This fact is well known in the developing world, where waterborne diseases can be an ever-present threat. The WHO estimates that cholera infections kill up to 143,000 people annually. Typhoid fever caused by Salmonella infection is responsible for an estimated 222,000 deaths each year. There are an estimated 280 million cases of Giardia infection around the world each year, with a small fraction occurring in the U.S. Nonetheless, the CDC’s most recent available data shows that within the U.S. the highest incidence of Giardia is localized in Northwestern states—exactly where the live water movement is brewing, making it that much more dangerous.
When a threat is not imminent or relatable, people tend to forget the reasons behind mechanisms that exist to protect them from that threat. It is the responsibility of those with good understanding to these reasons– especially scientists– to be part of the conversation: there is zero evidence that drinking live water is good for you and a mountain of evidence that it can be bad, even catastrophically so.
All of this leaves you to wonder how things got to this point. Have some people in the developed world become so far insulated from the danger of untreated water that they can’t even begin to take seriously the dangers it presents? Whatever the case, we scientists should be outspoken in our commentary on issues like the live water fad. Cultural moments like these are windows for us to engage with the general public and show them a side that is too often hidden– the side that cares deeply about the betterment of society and wellbeing of individuals.
Yan Liu, Project Specialist at SynBioBeta, is a polymath who loves both science and art. He brings talented people together, and he helps people know what they don’t know. As a writer, he’s interested in exploring interdisciplinary matters.