Water quality on one of my favourite TV shows! What…?!?!?
It’s not every day I see something relevant to water quality issues on US CBS network’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But this did happen last week, with a 04:50 segment titled, “Stephen Colbert’s ‘Go Fund Yourself’: Raw Water“:
Colbert called out the latest ‘Silicon Valley’ fad of people – wealthy tech types, in particular – overpaying to drink basically untreated, so-called ‘raw water’:
“Anybody here drink water but wish you could pay more for it? Well good news folks because the next big start-up craze in Silicon Valley is companies offering consumers the chance to get off the water grid with something called ‘raw water’ which is water that’s unfiltered, untreated and unsterilized. Wow! Drinking that sounds un-sane!”
Colbert highlights one grocery store in San Francisco, CA, selling 2.5 gallons (~9.5 litres) of ‘raw water’ for 60.99 USD (~43 GBP or 4.50 GBP per litre)! Colbert notes that Oregon-based ‘Live Water‘, Mukhande Singh’s company, is leading the new ‘raw water’ trend. He quotes the New York Times, where Singh says highly treated water is ‘dead water’, stripped of its apparent ‘probiotic’ health properties, and that ‘raw water’ is more healthy and ‘living’, as proven by its shelf-life:
“It stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery … [but] [i]f it sits around too long, it’ll turn green. People don’t even realize that because all their water’s dead, so they never see it turn green.”
Water sector people will already tell you that piped tap water is more akin to milk than wine; it also goes off. At any rate, Singh goes on to espouse anti-fluoride messaging:
“Tap water? You’re drinking toilet water with birth control drugs in them … Chloramine, and on top of that they’re putting in fluoride. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it’s a mind-control drug that has no benefit to our dental health.”
In terms of the actual business that Live Water claims to offer I found fascinating – as someone who shares a building with researchers who study the service economy, and service innovations – their statement that:
“Water is free ~ Our service is delivery”
What this implies about their abstraction licensing and payment matters, I couldn’t say…
(As a caveat to what is about to follow, I did also notice on this same page, which lists apparent health benefits, a disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Our services are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.“)
What did other media say?
I Googled ‘raw water’. There were a whole host of rebuttals to Singh’s products and views across many media outlets. You can get a flavour of the responses from these headlines:
- Unfiltered Fervor: The Rush to Get Off the Water Grid, 29 December 2017, The New York Times.
- Please Do Not Buy Into This “Raw Water” Trend, It’s Dangerous And Dumb: No, fluoride is NOT a mind control drug, 30 December 2017, Nylon.
- Silicon Valley’s Next Big Idea: Untreated Drinking Water, 31 December 2017, Fortune.
- This New ‘Raw’ Water Trend Is Idiotic and Expensive: Unfiltered, unsterilized, and untreated water is already 2018’s worst idea, 2 January 2018, Esquire.
- The Latest Health Crazy: Raw Water, 2 January 2018, American Council on Science and Health.
- ‘Raw’ water is the latest health fad that could make you very sick, 3 January 2018, Global News (Canada).
- “Raw Water” Trend Builds on a Ridiculous Water Supply Conspiracy Theory, 3 January 2018, inverse.com (Inverse is described by Wikipedia as ‘an American online magazine covering topics such as technology, science, and culture while being geared to young millennial men‘).
- Meet “raw” water—ludicrously priced unfiltered water with random bacteria: With pricing as high as $6 per gallon, company claims health benefits without data, 3 January 2018, Ars Technica.
- Is pricey ‘raw water’ trend all wet? CDC says drinking untreated water a health risk, 3 January 2018, The Kansas City Star.
- 4 Things to Know About Raw Water, Silicon Valley’s New Fad Beverage: Other than not to drink it yourself, 4 January 2018, Eater San Francisco.
- Silicon Valley elites can’t get enough of dangerous, untreated ‘raw water’ — here’s why it’s a bad idea, 4 January 2018, Business Insider UK.
- This $64 Viral ‘Raw Water’ Is Allegedly Just Tap Water from Oregon, 5 January 2018, People.
- This Pricey ‘Raw Water’ Is a Total Scam—$64 Gets You Tap Water from Oregon: We got to the bottom of the buzziest new wellness trend, 5 January 2018, Men’s Health.
- Silicon Valley Wants You to Cash In Your 401(k) to Buy “Raw Water”: The hip, expensive way to drink untreated H20, 5 January 2018, Mother Jones.
- Tech bros are spending $12 a gallon to drink third-world water, 5 January 2018, Golf Digest: The Loop.
- Liquidating their assets! Bizarre fad sees people spending up to $37-a-jug for ‘raw WATER’ from an Oregon start- up that proudly offers ‘unfiltered, untreated, and unsterilized’ H2O, 6 January 2018, Daily Mail Online.
- Why the Raw Water Movement Is So Obnoxious: It doesn’t just reveal Silicon Valley’s idiocy and love of capitalism. It exposes their disinterest in everyone else, 8 January 2018, Slate.
- “Raw Water” Makes a Mockery of Human Suffering: It’s a play-act of poverty that puts ‘slum tourism’ to shame, 8 January 2018, National Review.
- Does “Raw Water” Provide Probiotic Health Benefits? Not only can the latest health craze put you in danger of contracting dangerous diseases, the purported benefits have no basis in science, 11 January 2018, Snopes.com (this one has lots of links to scientific studies).
All these articles stress the health risks of consuming untreated water supplies. Reading between the lines – and trying to get a sense of why such a movement can emerge in a country with an ostensibly developed water utility sector – these pieces also suggest:
- Some US citizens crave a kind of ‘sustainability’ movement to go off-grid, e.g. similar to installing photovoltaic solar panels, that will make them ‘independent’ of, or ‘safe’ from what they presumably see as misguided (just underfunded?) utilities, authorities and regulations.
- There’s an apparent mistrust by certain US elites, at least, whether water utility governance and operations are in the public (health) interest – even though US water utilities are primarily public municipal bodies, not privately owned or operated to a large degree (in contrast to the fully divested, privatised system in England and Wales, UK).
- There’s mistrust of conventional water treatment approaches – particularly fluoride dosing of potable water supplies, where dental health benefits are contested (the jury is out in the UK over this too) or at worst is seen as state-sponsored ‘mind control’.
- There’s a belief in the supposed ‘natural’ and/or self-purifying / self-filtering ‘power’ of raw water, and thereby raw water sources (this is not unlike the UK 19th century scientific belief that rivers had an almost inexhaustible capacity to self-purify pollutants discharged into them; you can see me talk about this in one of our MOOC videos on YouTube here).
- A belief that non-chlorinated ‘raw’ water, or any of its more ‘natural’ equivalents, taste better, and/or have superior health properties than conventionally treated potable water.
Juicero, Zero Mass Water complications
Media coverage of Live Water was somewhat muddied by it being run by Mukhande Singh (Christopher Sanborn). Singh was associated with last year’s heavily criticised ‘$400 juicer’, Juicero, a start-up making a high-cost, counter-top cold-press juicer to squeeze proprietary $5-7 raw fruit and veg packs that could be squeezed by hand, which shuttered in September 2017.
A further complication was that many stories lumped a completely separate water supply approach into this ‘raw water’ movement. One was the photovoltaic-powered, condensing/desiccant-based, rooftop, air-to-water technology from company, Zero Mass Water (for details see, These solar panels can literally pull clean drinking water out of thin air, from 28 October 2016, Business Insider UK; and this YouTube link).
This is another dimension to the USA’s untreated or alternatively treated water movement. Problematically, even though I’m not personally in a position to assess it, this air-to-water approach has also been criticised, e.g. by YouTube science guy Thunderf00t. He made a video about it, noting it would be challenging to scale it up as an effective solution to drinking water scarcity:
Home-treatment water technology
I would class Zero Mass Water as more of a decentralised, point-of-use or home/office-based technology approach, that is quite different to the untreated ‘raw’ water case. However it also seems to be part of a movement of US water customers feeling they need – and are prepared to pay for – more quality / quality assurance of their drinking water than they believe their utilities can provide.
Here I’ve noticed, far more so than here in the UK, that plumbed-in water filter systems seem popular in the USA. Last year I saw some of my favourite Telsa electric car YouTubers, Like Tesla, highlight such systems (starting at 07:45 below; the system shown is by AquaOx; I believe they may subsequently have installed a similar filter themselves):
What does this mean for the UK’s water sector?
The USA perhaps is a bit more prone to various individualistic health-craze / off-grid movements than the UK. (Episodes where investment in adequate infrastructure has not occurred, like the shocking water quality crisis, beginning in 2014 in Flint, Michigan, now dragging on into 2020, provide an understandable impetus too…)
Might we see similar ‘raw water’, ‘off-grid’ and decentralised ‘home-treated’ movements in the UK? Could this happen if the UK water sector does not address its ‘legitimacy challenge’ that Ofwat recently reiterated exists between water companies and customers (as also quoted in my last post)…?
“If we are successfully going to meet the legitimacy challenge that is being posed to the sector, we need to be able to demonstrate that, despite people’s suspicions, water companies are indeed being run in the public interest…” -Cathryn Ross, Ofwat, 17 October 2017
Living Water and The Fluoride Deception
You might think it cannot happen. But perhaps here in the UK there is scepticism about mainstream water sector services and approaches. This is obviously a much bigger discussion, taking in views on privatisation, customer engagement and so on. But, as a thinking point, I wanted to end this post by mentioning a series of books I came across some years back:
These books cover ideas by Austrian so-called ‘Water Wizard’, Viktor Schauberger (1885-1958). They date back to 1976 (in the original Swedish, which I don’t have) to 2001, across various editions. How was my attention brought to them, you might ask?
By a UK-based organisation! In fact, I remember vividly getting an atypical, unsolicited call at my office number, from the Psychic Museum, in Stonegate, York (opened in 2003 and closed, apparently due to a ‘lack of visitors’ in 2007). A decade or so on, there still seems to be interest in Viktor Schauberger’s ideas, possibly in the UK, but definitely at the Institute of Ecology Technology in Sweden.
From these books, I realised Schauberger was a fascinating person. He wrote passionately about the evils of polluting watercourses and sources, with real environmental consciousness. However he also proposed quite contentious alternative, supposedly more natural engineering and technologies that he asserted would treat water in more environmentally-friendly, healthy ways (wooden pipes with inserts to generate spiral vortices of water flow, and so on). In his schemes, he made liberal use of terms that would be translated as ‘living water’ and ‘dead water’. His way would ensure people drank ‘living water’; mainstream approaches would result in consumption of ‘dead water’. So you can see, due to recommendations I received whilst in the UK, I had already come across this kind of water system-related scepticism, and these ‘live’ and ‘dead’ water terms, well before hearing them on Colbert’s TV segment!
I imagine most academics would dismiss Schauberger’s work as pseudo-science. Indeed the Wikipedia page about him bluntly sums him up as an ‘Austrian forest caretaker, naturalist, pseudoscientist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter‘ (emphasis added). I think a sympathetic view is that in his own, perhaps oblique ways, with metaphors and imagery he best identified with, he was highlighting the existence of a broader Western/modern psychological, social and economic malaise, stemming from emerging, wide-scale environmental damage and inequalities linked to 19th and early-20th century industrial and technological transitions.
I’m trying to adopt a similar viewpoint about the scepticism and mistrust embedded in this current 21st century, Silicon Valley/USA ‘raw’, ‘live’, ‘living’, ‘untreated’, ‘home-treated’ movement. It’s clearly not new scepticism but I think we need to dig deeper to see it as more about long-standing transparency and legitimacy issues regarding water (and broader) governance failings in the USA (and beyond). It can be a prompt to scrutinise education and engagement issues, and people’s feelings and realities in being included in or excluded from service, infrastructure and technology approaches and decisions that clearly deeply affect their lives, their health, their families and their communities.
Anyway, to close out, I also want to briefly mention another book I was recommended to read during my university work, back in 2006. I can’t recall who put me on to it (it was definitely also a UK link) but this book makes it clear that Silicon Valley-inspired, 2017/18 fluoride-in-water discussion is also far from new. It’s been going on a long time. This particular book traces it back to the 1942 to 1946 US Manhattan Project. Once again, beyond the additional element here of the military-industrial-complex, the problem seems as much about failures of legitimacy, governance and meaningful consultation and participation, as it is about technical issues…
To finish on a note of optimism, hopefully fashions like ‘raw water’ can eventually serve as a kind of trigger for water sectors around the world to aim increasingly for more inclusion and transparency, engagement and participation, education and challenge (e.g. to pseudo-scientific fixes and harmful ‘alternatives’) with whatever centralised and/or decentralised water and sanitation systems and approaches best serve the needs of communities, citizens and customers.
As the Colbert segment and this whole ‘raw water’ story shows, where this does not happen, for whatever reasons, then even in supposedly well-educated, well-informed parts of the world like Silicon Valley, harmful opportunistic fads can spring up to fill the void, to profit from people’s fears, vulnerability and isolation.