Where Have All the (Public Water) Fountains Gone?

This lovely stone water fountain, located in Union Station, Washington, D.C., is inoperable.
This lovely stone water fountain, located in Union Station, Washington, D.C., is inoperable.

The once ubiquitous public water fountain has become as scarce as the public phone in some communities. Cell phones have put public telephones on the cultural “endangered list.” Are bottled water and refillable water bottles doing the same to the water fountain? There’s good reason to reconsider banishing the good old drinking fountain, with a few important caveats.

Public water fountains can provide a free, thirst-quenching, zero-calorie drink for people on the go, whether that means a long swig at the spout or a water bottle fill-up. USA Today reports good old “H-2-O” has become America’s favorite drink. The US has one of the safest water supplies in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and although US water quality may vary from place to place, tap water must meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Is there a Health Problem with Drinking Fountains?

The answer is: It depends.

1. Technology has lessened the risk.

Drinking water fountain technology has improved over the past decades. At one time, water shot up vertically from a spout, inviting children to wrap their mouths around the spout, leaving their germs to be dispensed to the next drinker. Spouts are now designed to be installed at an angle to the drinker, with a spout shield that prevents the former mischief. (That said, it wouldn’t hurt to let the water run for 10 seconds or so before quenching your thirst.)

2. Some water fountain surfaces may be contaminated with pathogens.

We know children (love them as we may) can be running, jumping, laughing reservoirs of pathogens!  Water fountain toggles in schools were identified as one of the most contaminated surfaces in schools in one study. In another study, rotavirus, which is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children, was identified on water fountain surfaces in daycare facilities. This begs the question:  Are water fountain surfaces ever cleaned and disinfected? They should be, and on a regular basis.  A simple chlorine bleach solution (1 tbsp. bleach in 1 gal. of water) can do the trick in schools and public buildings that are staffed by custodians. If in doubt about the level of maintenance, the public can use portable wipes on these surfaces to help reduce germ transmission.

3. Positive Water Pressure

Positive water pressure is critical to keeping clean water flowing out of the fountain, preventing back-siphonage.

A Matter of Priorities

Cleaning and Disinfecting Paid off in Washoe County, Nevada Norovirus Outbreak

The winter break period of 2012 was a busy one for the custodial staff of Washoe County, Nevada schools. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal (January 3, 2013), every hard surface in every school was scrubbed down with a bleach solution in an effort to control a norovirus outbreak that affected every county elementary, middle and high school facility.

The task, which included thorough cleaning of the spouts and basins of drinking fountains, was successful in helping to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus.

In 2012 EPA began collaborating with US mayors “to reinvigorate our nation’s supply of public drinking fountains” and “publicize the benefits of drinking safe, affordable tap water.” According to the Agency’s Bring Back the Water Fountain! web page, promoting the public fountain is one way to foster an understanding of the tremendous efforts of approximately 155,000 public water systems in cities and municipalities throughout the US.  These systems treat, filter and deliver tap water to homes, businesses and institutions, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at an average cost of $0.002 per gallon. The question is:

□ Can you find a public water fountain?

□ If you can, can you be assured is it properly designed and well-maintained?

If we are serious about bringing back the public drinking water fountain, let’s make sure we do it right.

Bruce Bernard, PhD, is President of SRA International, Inc. and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Toxicology.