But . . . Why?

Tech bros are spending $12 a gallon to drink third-world water

January 5, 2018
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you thought the "this isn't an episode of Silicon Valley" meme had peaked, hold on to your Yerba. Or let go of it and reach for a nice cool glass of "raw water." Tech bros are now literally spending $12 a gallon for the privilege of drinking water that people in third-world countries would spend the same amount to not have to drink.

There's a new incomprehensibly stupid health trend trend taking off in the Bay Area, marketed as the "raw water" movement. "Raw water" is described by one leading brand as "untreated, unfiltered, and unsterilized spring water." That brand, Live Water, has 2.5-gallon ornamental jugs going for over $60 in some San Francisco stores. And, according to a recent New York Times article, they're selling out.

On the plus side, it seems raw water is free of the "bad" chemicals the evil government puts in your tap water, such as chlorine and fluoride. On the minus side it can theoretically kill you.

The trend, spearheaded by this walking parody has caught on among other cartoonish paranoid narcissists, including some major tech execs (such as a guy who sits on the board for LinkedIn and Netflix). These enlightened souls who spend their days strategizing how best to monetize every moment of your down time believe raw water is for some reason healthier and "purer" than tap water -- which is untreated natural ground water we "purify" because when we don't it literally kills people.

According to the Times article, the trend is peaking in where else but coastal California, where in one San Francisco health food store, called Rainbow Grocery, a brand of raw water sells for about $12 a gallon. A San Diego store, called Liquid Eden, reportedly sells fluoride-free, chlorine-free, "mineral electrolyte alkaline" water for a scant $2.50 a gallon. The store claims it sells an average of 900 gallons a day, which comes out to about $820,000 a year. All so people can feel smarter than you.

They're not. There's no better proof than Live Water's own website. The founder and "chief" of that company, Mr. Mukhande Singh (whose given name is Chris Sanborn), is, according to the Times, "described in his marketing materials as sitting naked and cross-legged on a hot spring, his long brown hair flowing over his chest." I unearthed some corroborating evidence on Mr. Singh's Bandcamp page:

The "off the water grid" movement isn't just about water from the ground. An Arizona start-up called Zero Mass Water, which has raised about $24 million in venture capital, has developed a system it calls "Source," which pulls moisture from the air around you and filters it. Its chief executive told the Times that the aim is to make water "that’s ultra high quality and secure, totally disconnected from all infrastructure." The air around us, as you have likely just deduced, is not totally disconnected from all infrastructure.

But it seems the Live Water guys draw the water they sell (for about $12/gallon) from some very specific sources, which, given the way they apotheosize them, seem at first blush safe. And in defense of the many attacks on its product that came in the wake of the Times article, Live Water posted a statement on its website that explained, with what I can only describe as "raw grammar," why you should trust the company's water.

1. It's from "an ancient aquifer that we have extensively tested and has shown no harmful contamination what so ever." [SIC] But what those tests are remains a mystery, and since they're the ones testing it, you have to trust them in order to trust them.

2. "Water is collected from the covered spring head, so there is no chance for surface bacterias [SIC] to enter the water." This makes no sense. Also, these self-identified experts also don't know what the plural form of "bacterium" is.

3. "Our bottling facility is a sterile environment in which we triple rinse and wash our glass jugs." Not washed -- triple-rinsed. With... water.

And of course "natural" doesn't in and of itself mean "safe." Lightning, for instance, is a natural source of electricity. Cheetahs purr. And to state the obvious, drinking untreated water is quite dangerous, even if its from water sourced to natural springs far removed from the vile fingers of the United States government. And even if there aren't dead deer rotting in it or fecal particles floating around unseen, elements in the earth ("natural") such as arsenic can also poison you.

This is why we have government regulations about water. It's why we treat ground water in the first place.

"Almost everything conceivable that can make you sick can be found in water," food safety expert Bill Marler told Business Insider in an interview in response to the raw water movement.

For instance, untreated water even from the "most pure" sources can contain animal feces and corpses. This can spread diseases such as giardia and hepatitis A, an outbreak of which killed 20 people last year in California. Raw water can also be fortified with other immune system-boosting vitamins and minerals such as E. coli, dysentery, and polio. Cholera can also be transmitted via untreated water.

The problem here, it seems to me, is the same as with the anti-vaxxer movement: We don't know how good we have it. Thanks to science, which Silicon Valley is purportedly based on, and to health regulations we've developed as a result of scientific study, Americans don't die frequently from water-borne diseases. Or as Marler put it, "It's fine till some 10-year-old girl dies a horrible death from cholera in Montecito, California."

Meanwhile, the Live Water website markets a vision of "a near future where more pure water exists and people embrace the free gifts nature offers."

But.

We've also got to acknowledge this movement, wrong-headed and deadly dangerous as it might be, does itself spring from a not unreasonable skepticism of public water sources in the United States. I'm not talking about fluoride conspiracy theories here. In truth, some of America's tap water has deadly serious problems. The most well-known example, of course, is the sickening tragedy that has played out for years in Flint, Michigan, where coliform bacteria, E. coli, and lead poisoning ravaged the largely poor, largely black community there. Fetal deaths, for instance, went up 58% after the town switched its water source to the lead-heavy Flint River in order to save a few bucks. Then the government sat on the scandal, and, man, it just gets worse from there.

I'll add that Reuters published an incredible in-depth investigation that revealed that thousands of U.S. municipalities had water with lead levels worse than in Flint.

Thousands.

But even with our problems, we're much better off than other countries where people have no choice but to drink "raw water." In fact, people the world over would love to have access to tap water that's been treated to American standards, instead of risking their health drinking "raw water." Billions of people around the world get their drinking water from sources contaminated with feces. And nearly a million people die every year from diarrhea contracted from unsafe water.

To boil it down to the core problem, Mr. Singh/Sanborn doesn't believe it can happen in the United States, which has endowed him with enough privilege to sell decorative jugs of water without having had to face the very real consequences that could accompany it.

In short, the problem isn't that Mr. Singh and those with him on this ego-trip believe they're smarter than the U.S. government -- the problem is they believe they're smarter than nature. They're ignorant of their ignorance. In response to the several recent articles that pilloried the company, Live Water doubled down on its philosophy with a statement that included, "We advocate people collecting there [SIC] own spring water as the best choice."

"[Our water] stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery," Mr. Singh/Sanborn told the Times. "If 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."

People don't even realize a lot of things.

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