Straight from the Tap

Why It's a Bad Idea to Drink Untreated Water


Did you know that Cleveland Water wasn’t the first water delivery system in Cleveland? That distinction belongs to Benhu Johnson, a veteran, who, in 1814, would deliver two gallons of untreated Lake Erie water to your home for one penny. Today, Cleveland Water delivers a reliable supply of safe, treated drinking water for about the same price – two gallons for a penny.

Outside of the cost, drinking treated water has numerous health advantages. It has reduced serious illnesses due to contaminated water, helped extend life expectancy, and facilitated the development of modern cities. That’s why we were surprised to see several media reports of people paying upwards of $40 to have two gallons of untreated water delivered for their personal use.

So we asked Scott Moegling, our Water Quality Manager, some questions about why you shouldn’t drink untreated water. Here’s what he said:

Why don’t we drink raw water?

Scott: Because raw water can kill you. While some water sources may look clear and safe, they could still contain microscopic organisms that can make you sick or even cause death. If you look back to the early 1900s, before modern water treatment techniques were used, we had much higher incidences of waterborne pathogens causing things like cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, salmonella, polio, giardia, cryptosporidium, and E. coli infections, to name a few. Thousands of people died from these and other diseases caused by drinking raw water. These waterborne pathogens are still in raw water and are removed via our treatment process.

What are we talking about when we talk about treatment?

Scott: It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but we’re talking about filtration and disinfection with a type of chlorine. Filtering and chlorinating the water removes or kills pathogens and keeps you healthy. A way to chlorinate public water systems was developed in the U.S. in 1908. Cleveland Water began adding chlorine in 1911, and since 1925, all water delivered to Cleveland Water customers has been chlorinated and filtered.

I looked up some mortality statistics maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 1901 to 1905 more than 7.4% of deaths in the U.S. were caused by diarrhea and dysentery. Typhoid fever accounted for 2% of deaths. In context, that means more than 100 out of every 100,000 people died from typhoid fever. After chlorination, cholera, typhoid fever, water-related dysentery and diarrhea, and many other waterborne illnesses were virtually eliminated. Today around 170,000 public water systems in the United States follow Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in order to provide safe drinking water.

So proper water treatment is pretty important to healthy drinking water?

Scott: Of all the advancements in public health, chlorination of water to make it safe to drink is cited as one of the greatest and most significant achievements of the last century by the CDC, the National Academy of Engineering and many others.

According to the CDC, in non-industrialized countries that do not have public water systems, 22 million cases of typhoid fever and 200,000 related deaths still occur each year. The World Health Organization says waterborne diarrheal diseases are still responsible for another 2 million deaths annually. If public water systems didn’t properly treat raw water, the United States could have similar waterborne illness and death rates.  

Some of the raw water people are selling has been reported to come from a mountain spring while other water has been collected from rooftops or by collecting water from the air called bio-concentration. Can these sources of raw water still have pathogens?

Scott: Mountain streams and springs can have contamination from animal feces, fungal spores, air pollution, from the rocks and soil water travels through, and from people who literally muddy the source of water as they try to collect it. The range of invisible contaminants in the water can also include VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, and from personal care products; BTEX (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene) from oil-based roofing materials; inorganic material ranging from arsenic, manganese, mercury, nitrates, nitrites, and sulfates, along with pesticides, herbicides from ground water including springs and runoff into surface water; and things living in the water such as protozoan, algae, phytoplankton, cyanobacteria and the odorless, invisible toxins cyanobacteria sometimes produce.

So, how are we sure Cleveland Water is safe to drink?

Scott: Safe drinking water is something I have dedicated my career to, and I know that everyone at Cleveland Water treats the health and safety of our customers as our top priority. At Cleveland Water, we continuously monitor more than 20,000 parameters in the water treatment process to ensure the plants are functioning properly. We also collect more than 350 samples each month from our distribution system and perform over 160,000 tests each year to ensure proper treatment and chlorination. Cleveland Water meets or surpasses all standards set forth in both federal and state Safe Drinking Water regulations. We make this data available online in our annual consumer confidence report. We have also achieved advanced certifications from the Partnership for Safe Water at each of our four water treatment plants.

At the end of the day, we drink the water our customers drink. We work hard and are committed to making sure the more than 1.4 million people we serve can count on us.

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