For thousands of years some natural spring waters have been associated with health. But recently something called the “raw water movement” has scientists and health officials reminding the public that drinking from untested springs can make you sick. Today, we try to sort it all out: are springs a healing tonic, a source for unadulterated H20, or a passing fad and a dangerous throwback?
It’s not much to look at: a dead-end road; a small concrete springhouse; a plastic pipe that juts out of broken pavement. Still, Jailhouse Spring in Exeter, New Hampshire, is something of a sacred place.
Discerning palates might be able detect a certain mineral flatness, or, at least, an absence of chlorine in the water, but people don’t simply come here for the taste. Jailhouse Spring has been a source of clean drinking water since the town founder took up residence not far away in 1638. The spring has supplied local schools and the local lockup (hence the name), and was even the site of a grisly suicide in the early 20th century. Exeter is, of course, now supplied with potable tap water pumped from a nearby river, treated, and then piped out to some 11,000 residents. Still, many people choose to drink from the longest-serving water source in town: Jailhouse Spring.
On most days, you’ll find a steady stream of folks filling up every manner of plastic and glass container. One man says he uses it to water the “vegetables” he’s growing in his basement. Another says she’s been getting her drinking water exclusively from Jailhouse Spring since the ‘60s. They’re both avoiding contaminants and chemicals found in the town tap – quarterly reports from the Exeter Water Department that show the public water here is carcinogenic. But ask these folks what makes them so sure that the spring is any healthier than the tap, and one of them replies, “because it comes from the ground, and it hasn’t been run through treatments. It just seems like it must be pure.”
This notion, that spring water must be healthier by virtue of its origin, is counter to the advice of practically every water quality expert, health official, and doctor. Untested springs can be contaminated with bacteria like E.coli, agricultural runoff, arsenic, and any number of other pollutants. Just because something comes from the ground, they’ll tell you, does not make it safe. So which is it? Is spring water a healing tonic, a pristine source of unadulterated H20, or a dangerous throwback?
“There is an aura of mystery that goes around springs,” says Frank Chapelle, a USGS hydrologist who has been studying the chemistry of groundwater for 30 years. “You know… where is the water coming from?”
Natural springs can have all manner of sources. Some are fed by deep aquifers that carry water that has been underground for thousands of years to the surface. Others are what you might call “young springs,” fed by rainwater that filters through the ground and eventually finds its way back to the surface, usually on the side of a steep hill. The earth acts as a filter for bacteria, but not everything gets stripped out. In fact, water can pick up minerals and other compounds from bedrock or surface contaminants on its way to the mouth of a spring. And depending on where a spring “recharges,” fecal contamination is a possibility.
But springs, by virtue of the fact that the water is stored underground, were vastly superior to surface waters back before the advent of chlorination. Public systems relied on bodies of water that could serve as reservoirs for diseases like cholera and typhoid. Pandemics spread from country to country and killed millions across the globe.
“You know it used to be taking a drink of water you were taking a risk through most of human history,” says Chapelle.
So if you knew of a spring that was clean “then you stuck with that because it was worth something,” says Chapelle. If you ever tried to play Oregon Trail without dying of dysentery, you get the idea.
Springs weren’t just less dangerous. In some cases, they could actively cure illnesses. Chapelle says that iodine in the water at Saratoga Springs in New York was observed to cure goiters in people. Certain types of anemia could also be treated with spring water containing naturally high levels of dissolved iron. These natural sources held such an advantage in those days that it became the basis for a massive industry of bottled spring water. Spring water was healthier and fashionable, but only if you could afford it. Think a 1 liter bottle of Fiji is a bit pricey? According to Chapelle, a pint of water from Saratoga Springs could cost $1.75. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $375 a gallon.
Nearly everything changed when developed countries started chlorinating water. Suddenly, a widely accessible source of uncontaminated water became freely available. Certain waterborne epidemics were practically eradicated in cities that treated their tap water. The shift was so dramatic that the spring water bottling industry was nearly wiped out too. Even the mild flavor of chlorination typical of some taps (a frequent complaint today) became stylish among the same affluent customers that not long before had paid a premium for spring water. From the early 1900s on, the clear-cut advantage that spring-fed ground water had had over public systems wasn’t so clear anymore.
Ask Chapelle if spring water is better than municipal water today and he’ll say that you simply cannot make those sorts of blanket statements. Old springs can have elevated levels of natural contaminants like arsenic, copper, and radon. More importantly, because the source of a spring is underground and out of sight, it’s not easy to identify just how old a spring may be.
“The vast majority of springs that you find especially in the eastern United States, where it's humid, the water the residence time of the water in the ground is very short,” says Chapelle. “ I mean sometimes on the order of days. And in general the younger the water, the greater the possibility that it’s going to have some kind of chemical or fecal contamination.”
The “Raw Water” Movement
About 10 years ago, a podcaster, hunter-gatherer, and epic beard sporter named Daniel Vitalis started a website called “findaspring.com” to help people find local off-grid water sources. Users also leave comments about water quality, flow rate, and, occasionally, post warnings about possible contaminants or a spring that made them sick. Vitalis isn’t exactly squeamish about the risks posed by drinking what he calls “wild water” - listen to his podcast, and you’ll discover that he hunts squirrels, processes and eats acorns (they’re toxic if eaten raw) and prefers to go barefoot whenever possible. He thinks drinking from local springs is the next step for people who are looking to eat local.
“There hasn’t been this like ‘back to the land’ movement with water yet,” he says. “For instance, we all really get now the difference between processed food and whole food. That’s like an easy conversation to have now. A lot of people haven’t thought about processed water versus whole water.”
For Vitalis, the best springs come from very deep, old aquifers. Unfortunately, that’s not a distinction that’s made on findaspring.com, where users can submit a spring regardless of its source or quality. And the springs you’ll find there vary wildly.
There are 27 springs listed in New Hampshire, most named for the road or town where they’re located. Some, however, are still branded with the reverence that they once held: Crystal Springs, for instance, and the ironically named “Everflowing Spring of the Plastic Tube”. Some have signs and are tested by local water departments, but most are not.
Fist Bump Springs in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, isn’t anything more than a rusty pipe across the street from a gas station. Conway Mineral Springs on the other hand is a spectacular (albeit greenish) hexagonal pool of bubbling water housed in a refurbished springhouse adorned with an ornamental onion dome. Vitalis listed this one on the website himself. He calls Conway Mineral Springs a personal favorite and claims that it’s “perfect for regular drinking.” Nearly all of the comments left by other visitors express concern over trash floating in the pool or algae growth in the water.
Until recently, spring water enthusiasts like Vitalis have been out of the public eye, sampling springs with relatively no notice from the general public. That changed in the final days of 2017, when the New York Times published an article detailing a growing number of entrepreneurs and consumers selling and drinking what they called “raw water:” unchlorinated water bottled from spring-fed sources, often sold at much higher prices than other varieties.
The article hit a nerve on Twitter and cable news. CDC officials discouraged people from drinking water from untested sources. Many critics likened raw water advocates to anti-vaxxers – people who reject the very scientific advancements attributed with saving millions of lives worldwide. One twitter user placed raw water drinkers in the same category as flat-earthers and 9/11 truthers.
Not surprisingly, that backlash has rubbed some businesses the wrong way. Tourmaline Springs is one of the companies mentioned in the New York Times article. They don’t treat their spring water, but they do test it to the same set of standards required of bottled water company Poland Springs. Spring water isn’t inherently dangerous or inherently pure so treatment is only necessary if there are unacceptable levels of natural or manmade contaminants. In other words, it’s no more risky to drink Tourmaline than it is any other brand on the shelf. Does that mean it’s worth the sticker price? Not necessarily.
“People tell us all the time they need half as much water than they normally need,” says Bryan Pullen, one of the co-owners of Tourmaline Springs. “When they drink it, they feel satiated with much less volume.”
That’s just one of the claims he and his partner Seth Pruzansky make about the quality of their product. In just about every respect, though, raw water is exceptionally common. More than forty million Americans drink from private wells - that’s untreated raw water at a fraction of the price and without any controversy.
When asked about the backlash they faced after the New York Times article, Pullen and Pruzansky say the media treated the trend unfairly.
“Nobody ever discusses how many people get sick from tap water every year,” says Pullen.
"We know very little about the quality of these sources."
In a nationwide study assessing water quality across the United States, University of California -Irvine researcher Maura Allaire found that while violations at the level of Flint, Michigan’s lead crisis are relatively rare, millions of Americans do drink water that violates standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Millions more drink water that is within legal limits, but exceed health-based quality recommendations.
In Exeter, New Hampshire, where many people regularly get drinking water from the historic Jailhouse Spring, the municipal water utility has struggled to eliminate a toxic byproduct of chlorination from their town tap, violating EPA standards every quarter for years. Paul Roy, the town’s water treatment supervisor says the issue isn’t an emergency, but residents do need to take the levels into consideration, as prolonged ingestion has been shown to be carcinogenic.
“This would be a 150 pound person drinking roughly 10 liters a day for 70 years,” Roy says, “ and they get a 1% chance more of getting some cancers.
Maura Allaire, lead author of the nationwide water quality assessment, said in an email: "Overall, the U.S. has some of the highest drinking water quality in the world. This latest study focused on identifying communities that are struggling to meet national standards. Hopefully news stories on water quality concerns encourage folks to become informed about their water supply, but assuming that bottled water and untreated spring water are better alternatives shouldn't be the conclusion we jump to. Both are subject to less strict regulations.”
Outside/In was produced this week by:
Outside/In was produced this week by Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez and Justine Paradis.
Erika Janik is our Executive Producer.
Special thanks to Joe Ayotte and Aquarian Analytical.
Music from this week’s episode came from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions.
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
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