We’ve all been there. It’s a hot day outside. You’re out for an afternoon jog, but you’ve forgotten your water bottle! The only option left is to sip from the nearest water dispenser available – the public water fountain. Approaching the fountain, you grow hesitant. You’ve heard stories of drinking fountains being riddled with harmful bacteria. When was the last time they cleaned this thing? What kind of condition did the last person who used this leave it in? Is the drinking water safe for me to drink? After conducting research of my own, I’ve concluded that the potential danger from public drinking fountains is grossly exaggerated. To reach my conclusion, I had to find the answer to two questions:
- Are public drinking fountains contaminated with germs and bacteria?
- Do these germs and bacteria have the potential to enter the water I drink?
The not-for-profit health and safety organization NSF International conducted some tests in 2005 to see what surfaces in schools were most susceptible to germ-infestation. Their results may surprise you. According to their findings, the surfaces you’d think most germs and bacteria would reside, such as toilets and door handles, actually have fewer germs. This is due to more frequent cleaning and inspection. As a result, other surfaces such as drinking fountains are often overlooked and can have even more microorganisms. Of the surfaces tested, water fountain spigots had the highest amount of bacteria with 2.7 million bacterial cells/in(squared). According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 1993, when looking at surfaces in daycares, drinking fountains were found to be one of the items most contaminated by rotavirus, which can cause health problems in small children.
While the fountain and spigot itself can be a home to bacteria and microorganisms, this does not necessarily mean that the water is infected too. Most major American cities carefully monitor their municipal water supply for germs and contamination. Measures are taken by water treatment facilities to ensure that citizens are provided with the same water that comes out of home tap water, park fountains, and fire hydrants. Along with this cleansing process, most water fountains have the water dispensed an arc shape. This means that –in theory – any contaminants from the spigot are constantly carried away. The water should be relatively clean and drinkable.
Most public drinking water fountains pose next to no risk of disease from the water itself or even the spout. Since the spigot is constantly being rinsed, it will remain relatively clean even if someone puts their mouth directly onto the spout. The bowl on the other hand can grow patches of infectious bacteria due to some people spitting during drinking and puddles of standing water. The part of the fountain that are most likely to be contaminated are the sections touched frequently by human hands. This includes the rim and the handle. The same can be said of subway poles, keyboards, door handles, and other frequently touched communal items. Surfaces like these can harbor dozens of bacteria & viruses transmitted by bodily contact.
Why We Need Drinking Fountains
Although you most likely aren’t going to become ill from a public drinking fountain, this rumor has had a drastic effect on the prominence of public fountains nationally. While there is no set number of public fountains, researchers say that the drinking fountains are disappearing from public spaces across the nation in places like parks, schools, and stadiums. “Water fountains have been disappearing from public spaces throughout the country over the last few decades,” lamented Nancy Stoner, an administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency’s water office.
The rise in population consuming bottled water may have contributed to the increased scarcity of water fountains. In 1987, Americans on average consumed about seven gallons of bottled water annually. In 2014, this number increased to 34 gallons per year. Americans now drink more bottled water than milk or beer. While this number has drastically increased, the real change is the public’s attitude toward public space, government, and even the water itself. The public opinion today is that water fountains are “dangerous, they’re not maintained, and they’re dirty.” The reliance on bottled water rather than public fountains has had serious environmental repercussions. According to the Earth Policy Institute, about 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to create the 50 billion plastic water bottles that Americans consume every year. The transition away from fountains has also made it harder to access water in public with fewer working fountains appearing every year.
Summed up, the public doesn’t trust public water fountains anymore, and that has negative repercussions. You can decide for yourself if drinking from the public fountain is worth it or not, but the facts show that tap water and bottled water are treated the same way. The loss of public water access is creating a poorer, less healthy, and less green environment. If you still have concerns about water contamination, try using a water filter to remove harsh impurities from your water, or this Brita water bottle with a built-in water filter so that you can enjoy clean, healthy water wherever you go.