The mission behind ‘raw’ water isn’t to persuade people to drink from untreated streams — It’s worse

David Brand
Jan 9, 2018 · 4 min read

Filthy, untreated water hit shelves recently and it’s fun for us to gawk at the weirdos who buy and drink it, which, if media coverage is any indication, we all seem to be doing.

But the problem with the stupid new fad of drinking unfiltered water is not that a handful of wealthy, post-science, anti-vaxxer loons will pay big bucks for repackaged, sewage-infused pond water. Sure, they are misguided narcissists (these random conspiracy theorists somehow know better than a century of science?), but these relative few will have easy access to cholera treatment when they inevitably drink shit.

The real problem is that these sorts of dangerous, unscientific, unfounded ideas trickle down the socio-economic pyramid and fuel existing confusion and mistrust.

I explored the issue in a story I wrote for City Limits in November. In the piece, I detailed how low-income individuals in the Bronx care deeply about improving their health but are all the time inundated with expensive, misleading and straight-up fake ‘wellness’ products.

It can be hard for anyone to tell the difference between what’s legit and beneficial and what’s just a scam — like so-called ‘detox’ snake oil powder. It’s not that big a deal for wealthier people who can afford to waste money on bogus products, but budgeting for health is more complicated for people on a subsistence, often fixed, income.

Water remains one of the few free health resources in the US. Too bad a lot of people don’t trust the stuff coming out of our faucets.

Many low-income individuals already have good reason to distrust public services, such as utilities. Ask the people of Flint. Ask the thousands of NYCHA residents without heat this weekend. Ask the kids stuck in freezing Baltimore classrooms.

Yet, for all its failings, New York City has perhaps the country’s cleanest municipal water system — even if lead can linger in individual household pipes.

Like mine.

Fortunately, I know this because I tested my water with the city’s free testing kit after moving into my Queens apartment. Through testing, I learned the water from the kitchen faucet has elevated lead levels if it does not run for more than six hours. After flushing the line for two minutes, however, the lead disappears. While I continue to drink the water every day, the surprising test results have made me a little wary of other faucets.

Nefarious marketers tap into that sort water suspicion.

I have worked in supportive housing for formerly homeless people for the past seven years. An absurd number of tenants — who generally earn less than $900/month — only drink bottled water. Many pay for monthly water cooler service, spending a huge chunk of their monthly budget on a free resource. Water conglomerates and distributors love that. They have fostered and capitalized on a multibillion-dollar market for a resource Americans recently took for granted.

But why do people spend so much money on water? Deliberate misinformation.

During the summer, I attended a tenant wellness event at a supportive housing site where a pharmacy rep visited to dispense health advice. The presentation seemed fishy — he would almost certainly promote his pharmacy to reap the profits from Medicaid recipients filling their prescriptions — but he was friends with an administrator and allowed to talk.

Anyway, he seemed relatable, charming and well-intentioned — until he started talking about water.

He told the tenants that New York City taps dispense “recycled toilet water” and recommended they buy Fiji water ($40 for a 24-pack).

Again, from his position of authority, he instructed people earning between $180 and $900/month to buy luxury bottled water instead of getting their home faucets tested for free from the city.

Now this isn’t to say that poor people don’t do their homework or don’t have the capacity to see through bullshit appeals. Not at all. In fact, they manage to maneuver and survive with frighteningly few resources. But corporations do muddy the waters with misinformation when it comes to “wellness” and deliberately target poor people with aspirational marketing (for example, fancy “wellness” water & bogus “detox” shakes — aka laxatives).

When it comes to water, these brands reinforce the frame that free municipal water is bad. Every time we hear it, that frame grows stronger and more solid.

So back to the repackaged filthy stream water garnering all this media attention. I imagine the Silicon Valley startups championing this dumb fad do not intend to change the water consumption habits of many well-educated individuals.

No, their mission is to further erode faith in government and in public utilities. To accomplish that goal, they frame dirty, unprocessed stream water as healthier because it doesn’t go through municipal treatment.

Maybe some people will buy that ridiculous argument, but not many since, again, the notion contradicts virtually all public health realities.

That doesn’t really matter, though, because their argument (public water is bad) has the effect of making people (especially those with past reasons to be suspicious) think twice about drinking from their faucets. That’s the real end-game.

By degrading our faith in public water, they make us more likely to pay for the bottles. Instead of putting our glasses to the kitchen sink, we’ll shell out forty bucks for a case of luxury bottles.

David Brand

Written by

Writer/Reporter and Social Worker in NYC. @D4V1DBR4ND

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