Proponents of drinking unfiltered, untreated, and expensive “raw” water that comes straight out of the ground claim that its health benefits include naturally occurring minerals and microbes. But the reality of inadequately treated water — from the tap or from a spring — is that those minerals can sometimes include arsenic, and those microbes can be deadly.
Water that springs up in the apparently pristine wilderness can also make you sick, in part because animals poop. “While the water flowing in the streams and rivers of the backcountry may look pure, it can still be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other contaminants,” the CDC warns. That’s why the agency recommends that backpackers boil water for between one and three minutes. If that’s not possible, the next best option is both chemically treating and filtering the water.
Groundwater wells — the ultimate in off-the-grid water that roughly 15 million households in the US rely on — also need to be routinely tested for safety. Chemicals like arsenic, metals like uranium, or contaminants from agricultural activities like nitrates can leach into the groundwater that supplies both wells and springs. Even rainwater — which is a great for your garden — is less safe for drinking unless it’s been treated, the CDC says. Animal feces, chemicals in air pollution or in roofing materials and gutters, and insect larvae can all swim around in rain barrels.
Now, it’s true that there are problems with public drinking water: the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s children is a devastating example that drew attention to the alarming extent of lead pipes in the US. And inadequately treated water may sometimes contain risky levels of arsenic and hexavalent chromium, the potentially cancer-causing chemical that Erin Brockovich made famous.
But the answer isn’t to leap into the arms of another poorly-regulated, money-making scheme that could make them sick. Instead the answer is to continue to push public officials, water utilities, and industry to ensure that our water infrastructure supplies water that is safe for everyone.