Put down the raw water and turn on the tap

The raw water trend is all over the news. It’s a top hot thing—drinking unfiltered water straight from a spring (though sometimes diverted through a bottling plant and available in stores for nearly $20 a pop).

It’s a trend that would make John Snow roll over in his grave. (No, not “Game of Thrones” Jon Snow. Read on.)

The real-life John Snow was the father of a major component of the modern water system as we know it, though perhaps not in a way most people would immediately recognize.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Humans have been moving water a good long time—since before actual time, really, since what we like to label “prehistory.” Storing and moving water is, in fact, an early sign of civilization (in infrastructure form). Stone was favored originally for the moving. The ancient Greeks invented pressurized piping and indoor plumbing (of sorts). So, for eons we focused on the moving of water, but that’s not the full snapshot anymore with water systems.

So, where does Snow come into this evolving water picture? Well, he didn’t have anything to do with moving water, but he had everything to do with making it drinkable (or, as they like to say in the biz, “potable”)—and decidedly less deadly.

An English doctor, John Snow made the connection between dirty water and disease during a London cholera outbreak in the 1850s. But, he was honestly making a very educated guess based on observational data hot spots. It wasn’t until Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke showed the world all the stuff floating in water (with the use of the microscope) that we really understood that what looks clean may not be clean. (That deserves repeating today: What looks clean may not be clean.)

As that knowledge became more accepted, water utilities started to filter their drinking water and treating their wastewater, and that filtering has saved a lot of lives and prevented any number of disease outbreaks in the last nearly 100 years or more as we refined the systems.

Water quality has advanced pretty far since those early days, and we’ve added in chlorination and UV light cleaning practices as well. This field encompasses a whole slew of standards and regulations, such as the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act here in the U.S. and the Drinking Water Directive in Europe, as well as data comparing and contrasting allowable particle ratios and, of course, the rather subjective views on taste. But, in an amazing world John Snow (and, probably, Jon Snow, too) could only dream of, we can drink water straight from the tap in almost any place in the U.S. and Europe. (In fact, Louisville Water, a utility in Kentucky, is so proud of their water quality and taste, they’ve branded it Pure Tap and actively promote doing just that—drinking that water straight from the tap for all events and functions, from family to corporate.)

We’ve become so used to this behind-the-scenes filtering and easy-to-use infrastructure that we sometimes forget that note we repeated earlier—that what looks clean may not actually be clean (and that you can’t see microorganisms without the proper lens but they can still make you very sick).

So, what sort of items are we cleaning away/clearing out with filtered and purified water treatment in the modern water plant? In simple terms: protozoa, bacteria, viruses, algae, parasites. In scientific terms—the Googling of one of which will make you grateful for real-life John Snow and all who came after for at least a week if not a year— amebiasis, giardiasis, cholera (which was once common in water systems) and E.coli, just to name a handful. (And, yep, you heard that last one correctly: E. coli. So, yes, poop—maybe tiny, tiny particles of poop, but still poop.)

We know we’re not the first to tell you that drinking raw water is a bad idea. The Washington Post has weighed the issue. So has The New York Times. In fact, Vox used those exact words—well, they said “drinking untreated water is a very bad idea.” So, they added a “very” to our conclusion.

With all that, we realize we’re not going out on a limb here, but we do hope that this particular discussion helps you have a shade more respect for your local water utility and the work they do every day to make what comes out of your tap safe to drink without, usually, the need for a single second thought about it all before you sip.

So, put down that raw water and turn on your tap. It’s cleaner … and cheaper, too.


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