Raw water fad touches a nerve for the industry

Feb. 8, 2018
Guest commentary by Paul O'Callaghan, chief executive, BlueTech Research.

The raw water phenomenon was covered in the mainstream media recently – for those of you not yet familiar with this, it is a fad in which the public is invited to pay for water that is 'unfiltered, untreated and unsterilized.' As Stephen Colbert puts it, this is also 'unsane.'

What this does speak to though, is the real issue of diminished confidence in municipal drinking water supplies. Groups such as Live Water believe that, intentionally or not, we are adding substances that should not be there and taking out things which would be better left in.

While Live Water is an extreme fringe group, they are not entirely wrong in all of their assertions. Reverse osmosis can remove minerals from water, which then need to be added back in through re-mineralisation. Unintentionally, carcinogenic chlorinated by-products can be created in the treatment process if organic material is present when chlorine is added, and lead can be leached from older pipes, with the events in Flint, Mich., being a flashpoint for this issue.

Acute water-related health emergencies are extremely rare. However, there are myriads of potential water quality issues and contaminants which water utilities need to stay vigilant for, including 1,4 Dioxane, PFOAs, nitrates, pesticides and cryptosporidium. Also, while we absolutely need to treat water to remove pathogenic organisms, this does not mean our drinking water is free of bacteria.

There is a growing awareness, particularly in Europe, that it is not possible to maintain an entire drinking water network in a sterile state. There is evidence that, rather than fighting this, it is more effective to accept that there is an acceptable biotic ecosystem in the network that can help outcompete pathogenic bacteria and actually help prevent health outbreaks.

Water is fundamental to heath and we increasingly expect real-time data on health-related matters, whether it's how many hours we have slept, steps we have walked or calories we are consuming.

The Israeli sensor company Lishtot offers a non-contact hand-held sensor that gives an instantaneous 'traffic-light' water quality reading based on the electrical field of the water, letting you know if the water is safe, dubious or not safe. While there are many questions to be answered about the scientific basis for the measurement and how it handles complex mixtures, the goal is the democratization of water quality testing. By transmitting the data to the cloud, Lishtot also aims to be a cloud-based, real-time water quality data system. This crowd-funded consumer electronic play in water is highly significant, irrespective of whether or not the company succeeds.

These are signals that there is a grassroots movement forming. Whether it's the raw water folks who are adopting a back-to-nature approach, or the more right-wing approach where individuals exercise their personal right to bear water filters and take the job of protecting themselves into their own hands, the genesis is rooted in increased awareness of water quality issues.

Ironically, this may bode well for water reuse, potable or non-potable. There is a much higher bar around monitoring water quality in potable reuse applications. If people lose confidence in municipal potable drinking water, well, that starts to put in on a level with highly treated, reuse quality water. If consumers will ultimately utilize point-of-use filters, this is one more part of a multi-barrier approach to water reuse.

While the raw water movement is an amusing phenomenon, there is a grain of truth in every joke, and sometimes fringe movements are straws in the wind for what may later become mainstream.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there is the designer water fringe. Voltea chief executive Bryan Brister was recently giving classes on use of the company’s CapDI water deionisation technology at CoffeeCon, a consumer coffee event in the US, showing delegates how to adjust salinity for perfect taste.

Meanwhile, the crowdfunded German company Mitte offers Nespresso-like cartridges in its point-of-use system that remineralize distilled water. On the company’s website, the system is described as replicating "the process that occurs in nature when water flows through rocks" which sounds remarkably resonant to some of the imagery used by the raw water movement.

BlueTech will be exploring these issues in more detail in our soon to be published review of the status of personal care products and micro-pollutants in drinking water, as well as a BluePrint report analysing the key drivers and trends in the point-of-use market.

About the Author: Paul O'Callaghan will be speaking at BlueTech Forum, which takes place on 6-7 June in Vancouver, Canada, please visit www.bluetechforum.com for more information. Visit bluetechresearch.com.

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