Some bottlers of untreated spring water trumpet its health benefits, but local experts are urging skepticism before drinking from a spring or joining the "raw water" craze.
A recent New York Times article examined the "raw water" movement. Mughande Singh, founder of Oregon spring water distributor Live Water, says that treated tap water contains contaminants, and kills out beneficial bacteria. The Live Water website extols the benefits of the company's spring water: It is "rich in electrolytes," promotes "probiotic" bacteria beneficial to good gut health, and activates the immune system, among other benefits.
The trend prompted the Durham County Board of Health to request a presentation about raw water, which it received last week. "When I started doing research, I was more concerned about what was going on locally,” said J. Christopher Salter, director for environmental health for Durham County, who gave the presentation. “I have not found any evidence here of anyone selling raw spring water,” Salter said. “I don't see it as a local problem."
The raw water movement is not new, but has received more attention recently because of companies like Live Water bottling it for commercial sale, Slater's presentation states. Water from springs and wells is technically raw water, he said. For springs whose water comes from a "sufficiently deep source," contaminants can come from the surface, or groundwater close to the surface, according to the presentation.
Rules differ among counties in North Carolina, but in Durham any well has to receive a permit, Salter said. Contaminants can enter the surface of the aquifer from a cracked well head, Salter said. Any well owner who wants to test their water may contact the Durham County Health Department. For a fee, the county will test for contaminants. The county can test locally for bacterial contaminants, but sends off samples for tests for copper and other inorganics, he said.
Some spring water companies offer assurances of safety. "Our water is so naturally pure it exceeds every Federal and State guideline for drinking water straight from the ground." states the website of Tourmaline Spring, a Maine company with a long history of selling spring water. Live Water posted this safety notice on its site: "Once a year we conduct the most comprehensive third party lab test available. Our tests have never shown any industrial age contamination or potentially harmful components," the website states. Their spring also is covered to prevent animal contamination, the website states.
The federal Food and Drug Administration requires that water sold for interstate commerce must be safe, "truthfully labeled," and meet regulations for bottled water, stated Peter Cassell, FDA press officer, in an email. The FDA regulations for bottled water include testing of the water source, bottling under sanitary conditions, and keeping it safe "from bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants." The FDA also requires "quality control processes to ensure the bacteriological and chemical safety of the water."
The North Carolina Food Code Manual requires that bottled water must meet FDA standards.
Bottled spring water will cost you. Four, 2.5-gallon jugs from Live Water costs $16 per jug (or $64), according to the website. A case of Tourmaline (12, 1-liter bottles) costs $35.95, the website states.
North Carolina's Division of Public Health does not monitor raw water for private consumption or sale, stated Kelly Haight, press officer for the N.C. Department of Health and Human services. "Raw water is prohibited for use in our regulated facilities, however. Raw water can contain contaminants like arsenic, lead, bacteria and viruses that can cause health problems," Haight stated.
Drinking treated water from a public water supply or water from a properly protected and periodically tested well, is the safest option. Haight said.
Even though the raw water craze does not appear to have reached Durham, but food safety experts say potential buyers should be wary. Janice Roberts, an N.C. agricultural extension agent specializing in Family and Consumer Sciences for Richmond County, said she has not been asked about raw water. But a question about raw milk from two family members during the holidays prompted her to write a blog post, "The Truth About Raw Nutrition."
In the post, Roberts writes, "Going against the science of pasteurization and treated water is as good an idea as eating Tide pods." There is a belief that raw milk, which Roberts said is illegal to sell for consumption in North Carolina, has more nutrients than pasteurized milk. While pasteurization does get rid of some good bacteria, it also gets rid of the bad — the reason pasteurization began. “People think there's a benefit [in raw foods] that the government is keeping from them,” Roberts said.
Salter says anyone wanting to test the benefits of raw water should beware. “I wouldn't recommend that somebody have someone pull their spring water and have it put in a jug for drinking,” he said.