News / Vancouver

'It's really not advisable': Experts warn against 'raw water' trend

Drinking untreated spring water can cause serious illnesses, say health officials.

Capilano Lake is one of three water sources that supply Metro Vancouver.

Courtesy / Metro Vancouver regional district

Capilano Lake is one of three water sources that supply Metro Vancouver.

The flood of recent attention earned by American start-up companies peddling untreated spring water has alarmed local authorities who worry people are forgetting the life-saving properties of treated tap water.

A recent New York Times story shone a spotlight on a handful of companies south of the border that are bottling untreated water — sometimes called “raw water" — and selling it to customers for the alleged health benefits.

Vancouver health authorities and food-safety experts shake their heads when they hear about the trend.

“I was quite surprised. I didn’t think it was something people would be considering,” said Natalie Prystajecky, head of the BC Centre for Disease Control’s environmental microbiology lab.

She calls water treatment “one of the most important public health interventions of the 20th century,” and adds that typhoid, cholera, and dysentery used to be common causes of death before treated tap water eliminated those illnesses in the developed world.

While no one seems to be selling untreated water in Vancouver yet, experts worry the trend could encourage people to consider other water sources that could be hazardous to their health.

In response to the controversy, Live Water, a raw-water startup company, posted a statement on its website. It defended the virtues of “raw water” and included this line: “We advocate people collecting there [sic] own spring water as the best choice.”

That’s exactly what some people in the Lower Mainland have been doing for years.

There is a point along the access road to Lynn Valley Headwaters Park in North Vancouver where people stop and fill up jugs of untreated spring water that flows out from the ground.

“I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, and it’s really not advisable,” said North Vancouver Mayor, Darrel Mussatto.

A quick Google search reveals dozens of sites in North Vancouver where people can find and collect ground water. But Mussatto, also the utilities committee chair at Metro Vancouver regional authority, says he has seen friends get sick from drinking spring water before.

“[The water] is untreated. You never know if there has been any kind of animal feces in that. People could get serious diseases from that.”

There are signs in the area warning people about the dangers of drinking untreated water, according to Metro Vancouver, but the authority doesn't keep track of how many people disobey the signage.

The authority supplies water to every municipality in the region — except White Rock — through a system that filters and disinfects water from three sources: Capilano, Seymour  and Coquitlam reservoirs.

Metro Vancouver’s tap water is tested about 10 times a day and results are sent to local health authorities, who are charged with alerting the public if something goes wrong.

“I would put that water against any water in the world,” said Mussatto.

Even bottled water is not tested as often, he added.

But it is clear that a segment of the population believes untreated spring water, or ‘raw water’ is safer. Jugs of raw water are routinely sold out in American grocery stores and one startup raised $24 million venture capital in a few short months, according to the New York Times.

But outbreaks of other water-borne illnesses do happen when people ingest untreated water — sometimes accidentally, said UBC food-safety professor Siyun Wang.

She pointed to a 2007 incident where more than 200 competitive mountain bikers fell ill after ingesting mud in Squamish.

“There was a pathogen (campylobacter) in the mud. If that was in the mud, it could be in the water as well.”

While both Prystajecky and Wang say they are surprised some people believe untreated water is good for them, the idea matches a growing desire for “natural” products.

Every year, the Institute of Food Technologists issues a list of the top 10 food trends. In 2017, number 10 was “natural living.”

“But a lot of pathogens come [from] nature. A lot of toxins come from nature,” said Wang.

“Just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is good.”

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