“No, you can’t use the water fountain.”
“Because, here’s the thing… Water fountains are gross. There’s tons of germs on there and I don’t want you to use one. Ever.”
This was the exact conversation I had with my three-year-old recently when we were at a theme park over the Christmas break. Having spent thousands of dollars on this vacation, I wasn’t about to have it cut short by my kid getting sick from a water fountain, so I made sure she stayed clear of them. Honestly, though, whatever the situation, I keep her away from water fountains, and I don’t use them either. Whenever I see one, I always think of that Parks and Recreation running gag about how the citizens of Pawnee always put the whole spout in their mouths to drink from them.
That said, I didn’t know exactly what’s wrong with water fountains, I just assume they’re gross. And since I already looked into what’s on TV remotes, cash and razors, I figured I should look into a few different kinds of water fountains too, just to see how gross they actually are. Let’s get to it, thirsty people!
Public Buildings and Parks
So, when it comes to the water fountains found in parks and public buildings, it turns out I was right on the money. According to a study done by The Star in Ontario, it would be safer to drink out of a dog bowl than out of a public water fountain, literally. In this study of 20 public water fountains in Ontario, they found that, on average, the spouts “contained more than 300 colony-forming units per milliliter — or in the researchers’ terms, ‘too many to count.’” To name just a couple of the nasty things they found, one was E. coli, which comes from your feces and ruined romaine lettuce for me for the rest of my life, and another was Legionella, which can cause intestinal problems, pneumonia and even legionnaires’ disease (a super bad kind of pneumonia).
To gross you out even more, that study also measured something called “ATP,” which they describe as, “the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) on a surface. ATP is the universal energy molecule found in all animal, plant, bacteria, yeast and mold cells. Residues, particularly food or organic residue, contain large amounts of ATP. When left on a surface, residues can harbor and grow bacteria and cause cross-contamination.”
In other words, the more ATP you find, the more gross something is. To give some perspective, food processing plants require an ATP level below 30, and your standard office — unless you’re this kind of guy — has an ATP level of 50 to 100. As for these water fountains, one had a reading of 4,529 and another came in at 8,570. As for the dog bowl they tested that was sitting outside a popular coffee chain, that had a reading of just 172. Dogs — not only are they the most loving of all pets, they’re also way less gross than people.
“Drinking water fountains are going to be contaminated simply as a result of the rapid turnover of people and their drinking habits,” explains Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, author of The Germ Files and host of the Super Awesome Science Show. “Because so many people use these things, they’re going to be contaminated, there’s just no way around it.”
In addition to what that study found, Tetro says you can expect to find skin-infecting bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (which can give you a staph infection) and fecal coliforms (that’s science talk for poop). For the most part, he does say those probably won’t make you sick, but it’s worth noting that a lot of bacteria are becoming problematic as they’re becoming antibiotic-resistant. So they might be able to make you sick, and nowadays, it’s getting harder and harder to kill those bacteria.
As for that water fountain my daughter wanted to use at that theme park, while this study tested public buildings and parks, Tetro assures me that the results are going to be pretty similar no matter where you go. So, as I see it, I rescued my daughter from a mouthful of poop.
Ah, but what happens when I’m not around and my kid wants a drink from her school water fountain? Well, this is bad too. Really bad. But first, an awesome little backstory. Back in 2007, a kid in Oregon Coast Technology School named Kyleray Katherman decided to challenge a ban on water bottles in his school, and so, for an English assignment, he tested what was on a school water fountain versus what was in the nearby toilet. While it’s probably obvious where this is going, I’d just like to say the fact that this kid was just 13 when he did this experiment seriously makes me think I wasted a lot of time watching Ninja Turtles as a kid.
Anyway, this kid swabbed four fountains and one toilet then took them to a lab and put them under a light to accelerate the bacteria’s growth (again, I’m amazed here). After a short while, he showed that the water fountains had way more bacteria than the toilet, causing the school to replace the fountain spigots, though they never did lift the ban on bottled water.
For a more detailed study, in 2005 the National Sanitation Foundation also found that toilets in schools are generally cleaner than the water fountains there. One fountain they tested even contained 2.7 million bacterial cells per square inch. That wasn’t only more than the toilet, it was also more bacteria than what was found on a child’s hands and on the lunch tray in the cafeteria.
And now this is in my head and dang it, it can be in yours, too.
We talked a lot about what horrendous germs are at your gym when we looked at, well, what’s on everything at the gym. It was there that we found out that the grossest thing there was easily the faucet in the bathroom, but a piece by Natural News challenges what we’d found, saying that the water fountain is the grossest thing on the premises, especially where you press for the water. Whichever one is right, you can expect much of the same things at your gym fountain that you’d find at any public water fountain, along with plenty of other gross stuff like Micrococcus, a bacteria found in dust and soil; Acinetobacter, a common soil bacteria which gives a nice home to viruses; and Corynebacterium, a fairly harmless skin bacteria, but which can cause an infection if you’ve got an open wound.
Ice Machine and Soda Fountain
Okay, so the good news here is that, according to Tetro, when it comes to ice machines, “in most places, the water has been treated, and as such, won’t pose a threat.” The bad news is that it’s really only the ice that’s safe, as the soda is going to be super gross. Tetro warns that soda fountains “are going to have quite a bit of microbial contamination, which has to do with poor hygiene and people always touching the fountains.”
According to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Food Microbiology, “coliform bacteria was detected in 48 percent of the beverages.” Yes, you read that right, there’s a 50/50 chance of there being poop in your drink. It also found that 20 percent of the drinks had greater than 500 colony forming units per milliliter. Want more? It was also found that 11 percent of the drinks had E.coli and 17 percent had Chryseobacterium meningosepticum, which can cause meningitis.
And you thought it was artificial sweetners that made diet cola taste like crap.
So What You Can Do About It?
To my pleasant surprise, there actually is something you can do to avoid those fountain germs: Don’t touch your mouth to the fountain! No, I’m not being a smarty pants here — see, Tetro says, “If you aren’t touching the fountain and the water stream goes for a few seconds, there’s nothing much to worry about. It’s only when you touch the surface that you might be able to pick up something.” So, first you have to avoid touching those surfaces that everyone touches, then let the water run for a bit so that those germs on the spout, etc. are cycled out, and finally, just fill up a water bottle or drink that stream without touching the spout. If you can do all that, you can dodge a lot of germs.
Additionally, by letting the water run for a bit, it will allow any dangerous metals sitting there to pass, including lead and arsenic. While this won’t purify the water, the danger is worse in those first few seconds, as anything sitting on or in that fountain is going to get mixed into that first bit of water. Speaking of which, yeah, lot of what’s harmful from a water fountain isn’t the germs from the fountain but what’s actually in the water. For a place like New York City, which is known to have exceptionally clean tap water, you need not worry, but for a place that experienced a water crisis like Flint, Michigan, those bacteria on the fountain are the least of their troubles.
So, I guess to be really safe, you just want to drink bottled water, right? Well, here’s the thing — as it turns out, the standard for cleanliness of bottled water is actually lower than for tap water. Just for a quick gross out, one study by the Environmental Working Group found that various brands of bottled water contained “disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue and pain medication.”
Yeah, so, good luck getting hydrated now.