Are drinking fountains safe?

Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2007 by Ed Harper

Recently, I noticed a sign above the drinking fountain at my work out club. The sign said in essence “Spitting into a drinking fountain is against Washington State Law”. Now, I’ve never thought this could be an issue in our society, but have you ever had to drink water from a fountain after a young child had gurgled much of the water back into the faucet, or been behind a person and they rinsed their mouth out and spit out the remnants? Apparently this is a common occurrence.

An expert in infectious diseases from my alma mater, USC, states that you might want to think twice about drinking from a fountain which you suspect has been the subject of unsanitary practices. John Leedom, MD, Emeritus Professor of Medicine states “Indoor and outdoor faucets are only as safe as the water coming out of them- Spigots that stay wet, particularly on a leaking fountain, could be harboring bacteria. That is especially true if someone coughed, sneezed or spit on it recently, Avoid fountains that do not look clean, he suggests, and run the water for 15 seconds before drinking to help wash away contamination.” Leedom, quoted in USC Health magazine, Winter 2007.

I have also heard that golf clubs have faced litigation for not cleaning the water cannisters where they have water stored which is provided to the golf patrons. Several clubs now serve water only in water bottles because the possibility of bacteria forming in their water coolers. The United States EPA requires water from drinking fountains to be tested regularly for evidence of contamination, but many small clubs and communities likely have not been able to get to testing all their water fountains. Additionally, the pipes and fittings inside older fountains can pose a risk of leaching metals into the water. With outdoor fountains especially, let the water run for 30 seconds to let the fountains have some time to clear out any sediment in the water, states Dr. Leedom.

So, when you are at the club, or a park, or anywhere, remember don’t spit in the fountain and avoid drinking from a fountain that you do not feel is clean. According to Dr. Leedom that if you feel a problem exists but have to have a drink, let the water run for 15 – 30 seconds to let the pipes clear.

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