One sign of how good we have it in the United States is that we take things like safe drinking water for granted.
Our complacency is so great that some savvy entrepreneurs are actually turning water treatment and filteration into a bad thing. They’re selling what they call “raw water” — and what the rest of us should consider an outbreak of diarrhea or worse waiting to happen.
The raw water fad has been gaining support along the coasts, with companies boasting to the New York Times that they get their water straight from the source, usually a spring of some sort, and do not use any filtering or treatment.
A snooty price, selling for $9 a gallon or more, is part of its panache. One maker even tells customers that when the water turns green, it’s reached its expiration date.
Actually, the water turning green is the least of your worries. It’s most likely algae, which is usually — but not always — harmless.
Of more concern is what you can’t see — bacteria and viruses responsible for some nasty illnesses.
Shigella, salmonella, E. coli, typhus, cholera — all are among the reasons that Americans and other developed societies started investing in water treatment.
Around the globe, cases of waterborne illnesses remain one of the leading causes of death. In Yemen, where infrastructure has been destroyed by war, more than a million have been stricken by cholera.
As Americans learned in the 1800s and even into the early 1900s, water isn’t something we should take for granted.
That’s when we began to understand the role water plays in transmitting disease. It was then that medical professionals and scientists began to understand the roles of bacteria and viruses in our environment. They also began to understand their roles in the spread of diseases, such as typhoid and cholera.
It’s the same scientific basis that underlies our ability to treat a myriad of ailments. It’s the same science that explains why antibiotics are useful in treating bacterial-based diseases, but not those caused by viruses.
But in science, as in politics, more and more people believe only what they want to believe, rather than what can be proved or supported through scientific research.
That’s not to say all untreated water is unsafe.
Since pioneers first arrived, many Kansans have used water from wells.
Underground water sources are typically safer than surface sources, such as springs and streams. But even underground sources can be compromised or contaminated by seepage from other water sources, such as septic systems, lakes or ponds.
Further, treatment isn’t a panacea, as residents of Flint, Mich., sadly learned.
There, a change in chemicals used to treat municipal water caused significant leaching in the lead pipes that carried water to homes, hospitals and businesses, creating a health crisis.
So the lesson is not that natural is bad or that manmade is worse.
It’s that science, when used reasonably, helps us make smarter decisions about our personal health and the health of our communities.
Sometimes, the difficulty is determining who has science on their side. Our world is full of celebrities, wellness gurus and advertisements that claim research shows their products work — to help you lose weight, have better sex and so on.
Most of it is bunk, just one more way to make money by misleading people. The trick is to discern between science and spiels that exploit our biases.
A former colleague recently told me that he advised his reporters and editors to question every claim they heard — but especially those with which they agreed.
We are prone to accept claims we want to believe. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s obvious in our politics and our science.
There is plenty of good information available, from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and a variety of other sites that cite peer-reviewed research and base recommendations on globally accepted scientific methods.
It requires a little more work, but to avoid being duped — or getting sick — we need to be as savvy as the guys who want to sell us $9 water.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.