Future historians are not going to be kind to us, frankly they are going to have a field day. Naturally things like Trump, brexit and climate change denial will figure highly. And the left’s response? Oprah for president? Seriously? Your answer to Trump is an anti-atheist, anti-vaccine, woo pedaller? Or in the UK they propose, Corbyn, a man who can’t control his own party, hasn’t changed his opinion on anything since 1963 (nor his wardrobe) and is so old there’s a 1 in 10 chance he might not wake up every time he nods off for a nap.
But its often surprisingly little things that make it into the history books. For example, the gladiators of Rome. I suspect that any Roman would be appalled to know that this is how we remember his civilisation. He’d probably point out that bread and circuses, well the bread bit was arguably more important and the “circuses” refereed to cheap entertainment, which included chariot races in the Circus Maximus (gladiator fights took place at the much smaller Colosseum down the road), street performers and theatre. And real gladiator fights weren’t quite as bloody as is portrayed in movies. Its equivalent to saying the only entertainment in America is NASCAR and pro-wrestling. Of course, the historian would counter by pointing out that the mere fact that such gladiatorial fights took place at all and that some significant portion of the population would show up to see them (even if it was only a minority), tells a lot about Roman society and hints at the reasons for Rome’s eventual decline.
So it is for this reason I despair when I hear about the latest health craze in America, raw water. And why I have a bad feeling that this is one of those things a future historian will make a big deal about. I mean when I first heard about it I assumed they were taking the piss.
The raw water movement, who will no doubt be getting a plug on Oprah shortly, claim that unsterilised water taken from streams is somehow better than the stuff out of the tap (which is controlled by the gov’mint) or regular bottled water (which comes from regulated sources, such as a spring). And they are charging outrageous amounts for the stuff.
To say this is dumb is something of an understatement. One of the great achievements of our time has been clean drinking water. As a hiker I know this more than most as I’m often forced to use “raw water” on long distance trips. And yes, its nice to drink water fresh out of a mountain stream….until you climb a bit further up the hill and find a dead sheep floating in it! The fact is, if you are doing a long distance, multi-day hike you’ve no choice but to scavenge what water you can and make do.
Exactly what level of precautions you should take depends on the circumstances. If you are in the UK, no more than a day or two’s walk from a road (or a mobile phone signal) and with access to NHS medical care, you can probably be a bit less cautious. Applying some basic common sense to where you take your water from and perhaps boiling anything you aren’t sure about should suffice (being Irish, I tend to make a lot of tea, so boiling water tends to be a necessity anyways).
Being a bit weather wise can also be important. Ironically in the British Isles when there’s been heavy rain can be the time its hardest to get good water. Given that most of the hills are covered in peat bogs and given that peat has a relatively low ph value, it means that in heavy rain streams can be full of peat sediment, which will make the water mildly acidic and contaminated in a way where simple boiling won’t suffice (that said, you can always collect rain water with an empty cooking pot overnight). A point I bring up because, a word from the wise, if you ever go hillwalking in the British Isles across bogs, be sure to wash your boots afterwards (otherwise the exposure to peat will destroy them). And I can’t help but notice how one of these “raw water” quacks is shown taking water from a boggy stream (I literally won’t use that water to wash my boots).
On a longer distance hike, in situations where the water is more likely to be contaminated (glacier fed water sources can be a particular problem), where the distance to safety is longer or the level of medical care isn’t as good (and thus the consequences of getting ill are going to be a lot more serious), you might want to take further precautions. Carrying a filtration kit or water sterilisation tablets is a must. And if you are part of a larger group, having perhaps some appropriate antibiotics to hand might be a good idea.
So this “raw water” craze seems to be driven by people who are woefully poorly informed about the realities of basic wilderness survival. In a city the stuff out of the tap is fine (well unless you live in Flint!). But doesn’t tap water contain all sorts of chemicals? Yes and so does raw water, or mineral water for that matter. Let’s be clear, when someone says “minerals” they mean chemicals. The only difference is that with tap water the levels are carefully controlled and regulated. With bottled water, it can be a bit less controlled, but they do at least sterilise it. Raw water by contrast is unregulated and unsterilised. Frankly you’d be safer drinking your own urine…although I’d best be careful or some quack will start selling that!
There is a way you can get pure water that has no chemicals or contamination. In laboratories we often used ultra purified water (I used to use as a coolant for my laser). But don’t drink it whatever you do, it tastes awful. Of course strictly speaking it has no taste (its just hydrogen and oxygen which are both tasteless), but the human body doesn’t really know how to handle something that’s tasteless, so it can provoke a gag reflect (so it “tastes” horrible to some people or even makes them throw up).
Now there is a legitimate argument here to be had about the costs and environmental impact of water purification and fluoridation. Cleaning up water and treating it does have an environmental impact, it costs money and it has a carbon footprint. And keep in mind that in the UK about 90% of this water is literally flushed away, as the bulk of the water supply is used for toilet flushing, washing, industrial processes or is lost via leaks in a Victorian era pipe network (maintained by private companies who still use dosing rods!). Only about 10% of the water actually gets used for cooking and drinking. So one has to question do we really need to purify and fluoridate all of that water to this high standard if the majority of it is just going to be flushed away.
Of course there is a solution, which is increasingly being applied, that of grey water (basically water recycled within the building or collected rain water), which can be used for non-hygiene related uses, limiting treated tap water to just the purposes that it is required for.
And while there is no doubt about the benefits of fluoridation, those benefits are fairly limited. In essence we have to ask is a modest increase in water treatment costs cancelled out by a modest positive in terms of public health (and I’d argue its worth the trade off). But this is more an argument about public utilities, rather than an individual consideration on health. By contrast bottled water amounts to argue in favour of an order of magnitude increase in costs and environmental impact for no describable health benefits (at least for those of us lucky enough to live in a country with good drinking water). And raw water amounts to abandoning all logic and reasoning all together and going for a lot of wishy washy woo……plus dysentery and cholera!
All in all, this raw water craze, much like other fad’s, climate denial or anti-vaccine beliefs does hint at something very rotten in our society. I have little doubt in a history book a few hundred years from now, in a chapter labelled “reasons for the collapse of western civilisation” under the heading “growing scientific illiteracy” these will all get a mention.