After his widely-maligned startup Juicero shut down in September, founder Doug Evans immediately hopped on a much more obscure health trend. While at Burning Man, he went on a 10 day cleanse drinking only “raw” water – that is, water that is unfiltered and untreated in any way.
Now, the company that supplied Evans’ water, Live Water, is among those attracting attention and investment from Silicon Valley’s health-conscious elite. Enthusiasm for “raw water” is also, health experts say, spreading dangerous misinformation and discredited conspiracy theories that could put public health at risk.
The New York Times reports that Live Water, which costs more than five dollars a gallon, is often sold out in one natural-foods store in San Francisco’s Mission District. Live Water’s founder – who changed his name from Christopher Sanborn to Mukande Singh – claims that public tap water is “toilet water with birth control drugs in them.”
The company also claims its water is “probiotic,” or promoting of intestinal flora. That is likely true in a broad sense – the water turns green if it’s not consumed within a month.
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Another concern of raw water boosters is flouride. One proponent interviewed by the Times described the effective anti-cavity treatment added to most municipal water supplies as “a deathly toxic chemical.” A startup called Zero Mass Water promises to protect drinkers from that danger by drawing water directly from atmospheric moisture. The Times reports that it has raised $24 million in venture capital.
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Fear of flouride, of course, has been satirized as paranoid hysteria since General Jack D. Ripper ranted about the “international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. And the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Donald Hensrud, stating the obvious, told the Times that water treatment and filtration eliminates serious health risks including E. coli bacteria and viruses. As experienced campers know, even apparently pristine mountain streams often contain nasty parasites like giardia and cryptosporidium.
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Hensrud also compares the nascent “raw water” movement to the anti-vaccination movement in its rejection of established health science. Conspiracy theories alleging that vaccines cause autism or other dire maladies have, in the real world, led to the resurgence of diseases once nearly eradicated by vaccination.
‘Raw water’ could end up paralleling the anti-vaccine movement by causing harm beyond its current small circle of elite advocates. Lower vaccination rates put entire populations at risk, not just the unvaccinated. Similarly, the idea that treated tap water is dangerous could undermine public support for the municipal water systems that are vital to urban life and broad economic progress.
Public funding shortfalls were the immediate cause of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The decision that led to devastating long-term health consequences for residents of Flint could by some accounts have been prevented by an additive costing as little as $100 a day – or the price of about 20 gallons of Live Water.
This article originally appeared on Fortune.