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Fountain of Filth: What Germs Lurk on Water Fountains?

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There are some foul things that go down at public water fountains. Other than using them as a trash receptacle, I used to think that people’s putting their mouths directly on the spigots was the worst atrocity imaginable. Then my coworker told me a horrifying story about a guy at her gym who habitually spits phlegm into the drinking fountain there. What’s wrong with people? Can nothing accessible to the public remain unmarred by nastiness? 

I’d always considered public toilets to be the worst offenders in terms of germs, but after hearing that story—and then remembering all of the spigot-suckers and unwashed hands I’ve seen at drinking fountains—I thought twice about that designation. Doing some research led to a startling realization: public drinking fountains, and even the seemingly innocent office water cooler, are covered with a shocking amount of bacteria. I’m talking about more bacteria than the surface of a toilet seat. That’s enough to gross anyone out … but just how dangerous does that make them? 

Toilets vs. Fountains: The Troubling Truth
That water fountains are germy is nothing new; various studies have attested to that fact for years, including a 1993 study published in Pediatrics that found traces of rotavirus (a leading cause of diarrhea) in the fountains at daycare centers. Even more disturbing than that was a 2005 study conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a nonprofit organization involved in public health and safety awareness. After testing various areas around two elementary schools for bacterial content, NSF scientists found that the most bacteria-laden area wasn’t the bathroom, but the water fountain. They discovered 2.7 million bacterial cells per square inch, which was thousands more than any other area they tested. The toilet came in at number eight on the list. 

A couple of years later, a thirteen-year-old’s informal study garnered even more attention. Kyleray Katherman was writing a paper for an English class in 2007 that argued against his middle school’s recent ban of water bottles. To support his argument, he tested four water fountains and one toilet around the school, using cotton swabs and petri dishes. Like NSF’s results, his showed that the fountains had way more bacteria than the toilets, which were surprisingly clean. 

In 2008, NSF collaborated with Real Simple magazine to find the bacteria levels of surfaces with which the public often comes into contact, like supermarket floors and park sandboxes. Once again, the water fountain (this one in a school cafeteria) came out on top, with sixty-two thousand colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria per square inch, and that was just on the spigot. By comparison, a park sandbox had 7,440 CFUs and the door handle of a restaurant restroom had only four. 

Coolers Can Be Just as Bad
This problem isn’t limited to school fountains, either. The New York Daily News tested various health clubs around the city in 2008 and discovered fecal bacteria in one fountain’s sample. Consumer Focus Scotland conducted a 2009 survey on fountains in offices, schools, and other public areas around the UK and found that twenty-three out of eighty-seven samples showed bacterial contamination resulting from fecal matter, cross-contamination (people putting other germ-ridden objects, like water bottles or hands, against the fountain), and a lack of proper cleaning. And lest you think water coolers are less susceptible to bacterial problems, think again: when Golf Digest consulted the Institute of Environmental and Human Health and Texas Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences about the bacteria content of water coolers at three Texas golf courses, one of the samples was found to contain over nine thousand CFUs. 

How is it possible that drinking fountains and water coolers are even dirtier than public bathrooms? Think about this: restrooms open to the public must be sanitized at least twice a day. The water inside toilets is regularly being flushed and renewed. When was the last time you saw a fountain or cooler get cleaned? I don’t know about you, but my answer is never, and the seven people I just polled say the same. Bacteria can live on surfaces for hours at a time, so if no one ever wipes down fountain spigots or water cooler dispensers, it’ll continue to thrive. 

The Bacterial Effect on Drinking Water
We know that the surfaces of fountains and coolers are dirty, but here’s the real question: is the water contaminated, too? Food Detectives, a show on the Food Network, sought to answer that in a 2008 episode called “Sleepy Turkey.” The show’s researchers informally tested drinking fountain water and found that it was mostly free of bacteria, potentially because of the way the water comes out of the spout (in an arc, rather than straight up or down, which prevents it from actually touching the germy spigot). Water coolers, on the other hand, had water with a much higher bacterial content. That’s because people tend to put their water bottles and glasses right against the spigot, which pours downward (and is probably rarely cleaned). The same could happen if more people did that at water fountains, but we tend to be more wary around public fountains than we are at our own office coolers, though both are clearly germ-filled. 

It’s important to remember that not all bacteria is harmful; we actually need some exposure to build up our immune systems and fight off illnesses. But when there’s an overwhelming amount in one particular area, especially one used frequently by many different people contributing their own germs, the chance of getting sick increases. Does this mean you should vow never to use public water dispensers again? Definitely not. Just be sure to let the water run for a few seconds before drinking, and try to wash your hands before and after touching any fountains and coolers. They’re public surfaces, just like toilet seats and supermarket floors. You’d wash your hands after touching those things, right? And if Mr. Phlegm from my coworker’s gym is reading this, stop spitting in the fountain. That level of filthiness is even worse than what’s lurking on the spigot.


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