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January 30, 2018

The Health Hazards and Costs of the Raw Water Trend

Artemis Health

You’ve probably heard of a recent trend among the health and wellness fanatics in Silicon Valley: raw water. The New York Times did an in-depth piece on the trend and its adherents, highlighting folks who pay upwards of $15 a gallon for unfiltered, untreated and unsterilized spring water. Folks who drink raw water swear by its health benefits, and whole-heartedly believe that common water treatment techniques do more harm than good.

Raw water drinkers have been roundly satirized by those who rightly point out the dangers of untreated water. Stephen Colbert took a jab on The Late Show, joking that the high price of raw water is, “The copay for your doctor’s visit after drinking unsterilized water.”


Joking aside, there are real health risks associated with drinking untreated water. Campers and outdoor enthusiasts often carry sterilization tablets or filters to prevent common water-borne bacteria and viruses like giardia, cryptosporidium, dysentery, salmonella, typhoid fever, and even E. coli. These infections can be serious, persistent, and life-threatening.

Unlike cryptocurrency, we’re guessing cryptosporidium from raw water is one trend that won’t spread beyond Silicon Valley. But we still wanted to know: what are the potential healthcare costs of water-borne illnesses?

We looked at sample data in the Artemis Benefits Optimization Platform to get a sense for overall costs. Here’s how we did it:

1. Calculate the total employer paid amount for medical and prescription claims

2. Filter by common water-borne illnesses using ICD-9 codes:

  • Giardiasis
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Cholera
  • Typhoid fever
  • Schistosomiasis
  • Salmonella
  • E. coli

3. Breakdown costs by age bins, percentage of spend, and more

That’s how we got the numbers above. Taken together, water-borne illnesses account for less than 1% of spending, but they cost approximately $642,000 over our analysis period. The average spent by member is just over $16,000, and these illnesses hit all age groups.

We wanted to dive deeper on some of these nasty bacteria and cysts, so we separated our calculations out by diagnosis code.

Giardia was the most common infection, with 526 members being treated for this illness.

Costs totaled approximately $540,000, and you can see spikes in claims during the summer months. While we can’t be sure, our guess is that members are more likely to be exposed to untreated water during the summer months as they visit cabins, lakes and campgrounds for recreation.

Dysentery and schistosomiasis were less common, accounting for less than 50 members with claims. Both diagnoses cost under $50,000 to treat, but when you account for the treatment of diarrhea alongside them, we get closer to $200,000 in spending.

Using a visualization that shows costs over time, we can pinpoint one member who was diagnosed with typhoid fever.

This member was infected in July, and employer-paid costs for his or her treatment totaled $16,107.

Common antibiotics used to treat water-borne illnesses aren’t too costly, but sometimes the symptoms require additional treatment beyond prescription meds. While we didn’t find any hospital stays in the sample data, we did find some indicators of symptoms that may be driving spending.

Dehydration is our biggest risk, with a cost of $1,347 per member for treatment. Perhaps this is due to the frequent saline shortages faced by hospitals. Next comes nausea with vomiting, rolling in at $789, followed by malaise and fatigue, then diarrhea. We can all agree that these symptoms sound like no fun at all, no matter the purported health benefits of raw water.

So next time your find yourself in Silicon Valley, reach for a safe, quality-controlled can of soda? Or just stick to tap water.

Want to learn more about how common health concerns affect your benefits spending? Get in touch for a free demo of the Artemis Platform.

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