What Diseases Can You Catch from a Water Fountain?

Drinking Fountain

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’re healthy and your immune system is strong, your risk of catching a disease from a water fountain is low
  • The handle of the fountain, the rim, and the basin may be contaminated and you should wash your hands after touching them
  • A healthy, environmentally friendly alternative is to bring your own reusable water bottle, filled with filtered tap water, from home

By Dr. Mercola

Before the environmentally destructive (and costly) bottled water craze struck, if you wanted a drink of water when you were out and about in a public locale you took a sip from a nearby drinking fountain.

When public drinking water fountains were first introduced in the mid-1800s, they were considered a sign of abundance and prestige. Suddenly clean water was available to anyone – for free – and eventually, circa the 1930s, the only people who used "low-class" bottled water were those who couldn't afford plumbing.1

Today, not only are drinking fountains not as widely available as they once were, but you might think twice about using the ones that are. As the Washington Post recently reported:2

"Fountains were once a revered feature of urban life, a celebration of the tremendous technological and political capital it takes to provide clean drinking water to a community.

Today, they're in crisis. Though no one tracks the number of public fountains nationally, researchers say they're fading from America's parks, schools, and stadiums."

Take, for instance, the International Plumbing Code. It's followed by most US builders and includes recommendations on such issues as how many bathrooms to put in an office building and how many drinking fountains it should contain.

In the 2015 edition, the number of required drinking fountains in each building has been cut in half.3

The issue is two-fold. On the one hand, many are reluctant to trust the municipal water coming out of the fountains. Is it polluted? Are the fountains and plumbing being properly maintained?

On the other hand, drinking fountains are shared by many, including those who may be sick. Many are reluctant to sip from a public, free-flowing water supply due to the ick factor alone. But do drinking fountains really pose a risk to your health?

What Diseases Can You Catch from a Drinking Fountain?

The answer depends on several factors, including where you actually touch the fountain. Most drinking fountains dispense water in an arc, which means any bacteria present at the spigot should theoretically be rinsed away. This is why it's a good idea to let the water run a second or two before you take a drink.

For most people, taking a quick drink from a drinking fountain poses little risk in terms of disease transmission, but there are some caveats, like whether or not the fountain is regularly cleaned.

9News in Colorado tested water fountains at the State Capitol, the Denver public library, and a Denver bus terminal. Each had varying levels of bacteria, with that at the bus station faring the worse. The bus station fountain had levels of bacteria that could potentially lead to illness, particularly in someone with a compromised immune system.

The library water fountain had higher levels of bacteria that seemed to be present because the fountain wasn't getting cleaned daily, while those at the State Capital "sparkled" with "virtually no bacteria at all."4

Other research has been less promising. For instance, a study of drinking fountains in day-care environments found drinking fountains (as well as telephones and water-play tables) were common sources of rotavirus (a common cause of diarrhea) contamination.5

Water fountain handles were also found to be among the most contaminated surfaces in elementary schools, and frequently were contaminated with norovirus and influenza A.6 This isn't entirely surprising, since any frequently touched public surface is likely to be a reservoir for bacteria – especially if its cleaning gets overlooked, such as may be the case with drinking water handles.

The other area of the fountain that's best avoided is the basin itself, which people may spit into prior to taking a drink. It's also a surface that stays moist, making it the perfect environment for bacterial growth. So to reduce your risk of contracting germs from a drinking fountain:

  • Let the water run for a few seconds before taking a drink
  • Don't put your mouth on the spigot or any other fountain surface
  • Don't touch the basin or the rim (and don't let your kids touch it either)
  • Wash your hands after touching the handle
Click here to find out why 5G wireless is NOT harmlessClick here to find out why 5G wireless is NOT harmless

Is the Water That Comes Out of the Drinking Fountain Safe?

If you're healthy and your immune system is strong, your risk of catching a disease from a water fountain is low. But what about ingesting the water itself? A sip here and there isn't likely to cause you much harm… but still, you'd rather drink water you know is pure.

The water used for drinking fountains is typically the same water that comes out of your tap (assuming you're in a municipally supplied area). On occasion, it's possible for water-borne diseases to pass through the water.

From 2011 to 2012, 32 drinking water-associated outbreaks were reported, causing at least 431 cases of illness, 102 hospitalizations, and 14 deaths.7

Norovirus, E. coli, Shigella, giardia, and other pathogens were identified as part of the outbreaks, although most of the water–associated outbreaks were due to Legionella in building plumbing systems and untreated groundwater. None of the outbreaks were due to "city water" that had been properly treated, so this is, again, a small risk.

A more pressing concern may be the vast number of human-made chemicals finding their way into the public water supply. There are more than 116,000 human-made chemicals now detected in public water systems, according to William Marks, author of the book Water Voices from Around the World.

This includes pharmaceutical drugs, both those excreted through urine and feces and those flushed down the drain or toilet. Many of these are not removed by standard water-treatment processes.

Chemicals from perfume, cologne, lotions, sunscreens, and medicated creams also add to the contamination problem, as does runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are among the worst water polluters on the planet.

Even aging water pipes in the US have become a source of toxic exposure that many fail to recognize, as they may deposit lead, copper, and harmful bacteria into your water. It's because of potential contaminants like these that I recommend installing a water filter onto your home's tap (and shower and bath), however this isn't an option if you drink from a drinking fountain.

Is the Drinking Fountain at Your Child's School Safe?

The tap water that comes out of the drinking fountains at many US schools may not be safe. The problem is two-fold:

  • Older schools may contain lead-soldered pipes that allow the metal to flake into water supplies or result in lead-contaminated water, especially when the water sits over weekends and holidays
  • Schools that get their water from public supplies do not have to test for toxins, which means they may contain harmful levels of contaminants and no one would know.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency on school drinking water revealed thousands of schools in the US – in rural areas and big cities, in both public and private schools – had drinking water contaminated with lead, pesticides, and other toxins.

In all, about 100 school districts and 2,250 schools had water that violated federal water safety standards, including one out of five schools with well water.8 Among the most pervasive contaminants detected were coliform bacteria, lead, copper, arsenic, and nitrates.

Contaminated drinking water is a reality for many communities across the United States, but the risks become even more apparent when you're dealing with water being supplied to children from a location that is supposed to be safe and protected: their school.

Environmental toxins, including those in drinking water, pose an extra risk to kids, as well. Children not only drink more water for their size than adults do, but they're also more vulnerable to damage from the toxins contained therein.

Aside from the potentially contaminated water, school drinking fountains are also veritable Petri dishes, and studies have found those in schools, in particular, may contain anywhere from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch of the spigot. 

Many schools now allow children to bring a water bottle to school with them, so I recommend sending your child to school with a day's supply of this filtered water from your home – in a safe, non-toxic, and reusable bottle – so he or she has plenty of pure water to sip on throughout the day.

Legionnaires' Disease Makes Headlines in New York City

At least seven people have died, and dozens fallen ill, due to Legionnaires' disease in New York City in recent months. Legionnaires' disease is caused by legionella bacteria, which grow in warm water (typically between 77 and 108 degrees F). Hot tubs, hot water tanks, decorative fountains, and large plumbing systems are common sources of the bacteria, which can be inhaled by those exposed to contaminated water vapor.

Legionnaires' is a severe form of pneumonia that leads to shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches, and headaches. It can be deadly, particularly in those who are immunocompromised. In New York City, contaminated cooling towers have been blamed for the outbreaks. The towers remove heat from water through accelerating evaporation, providing a perfect environment for the warmth-loving legionella bacteria to grow.9

In the US, one of the most talked-about outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease occurred in Wisconsin in 2010 due to a contaminated decorative fountain in a hospital lobby.10 Eight people became ill after being exposed to water vapor from the fountain, prompting officials to suggest decorative fountains should not be placed in hospitals, where so many immunocompromised patients gather. Dr. Christopher Ohl, professor of infectious diseases at Wakeforest Baptist Medical Center, told ABC News:11

"Legionella is very tolerant of higher water temperatures, it loves water… It could happen anywhere, in a hotel, in an office building... really any water fountain has a potential of having this happen... it's really impossible to reduce your risk."

Soda Fountains and Ice Machines May Be Heavily Contaminated

If you're wary of drinking from a drinking fountain, resist the urge to pick up a soda from a soda fountain to quench your thirst. Aside from the fact that soda is devastating to your health, soda fountains tend to be heavily contaminated. One study found a full 48 percent of soda fountains at fast food restaurants contained coliform bacteria – a type of bacteria that grows in feces. Eleven percent also contained E. Coli.12

Other opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms found included Chryseobacterium meningosepticum and Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Most of the identified bacteria showed resistance to one or more of 11 antibiotics tested.

It's a good idea to avoid soda fountains altogether, even if you're just looking for a cup of ice water. Lab tests showed that ice from certain UK branches of McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, and other fast food restaurants contained more bacteria than the water found in the restaurants' toilets.13

The bacteria count was likely so high because the machines weren't cleaned frequently enough or they had been contaminated by staff members failing to wash their hands. While none of the samples presented an immediate health risk, four of them contained high enough levels to be considered a "hygiene risk," the laboratory warned.

And, while the study was carried out in restaurants in the UK, the results can be expected to be about the same in the US, as the issue relates not to the water itself, but rather the bacterial growth that can occur in the ice machine, and/or lack of hygiene on the part of the workers.

Wait: Think Twice Before Picking Up Bottled Water

If all this talk about contaminated tap water and drinking fountains that aren't disinfected has you heading to the grocery store to pick up a case of bottled water, think again. Worldwide, $100 million is spent annually on bottled water. In 2010, Americans purchased 31 billion liters of bottled water, typically paying upwards of $1.50 per bottle, which is 1,900 times the price of tap water. And approximately 40 percent of bottled water actually is just tap water that may or may not have received additional treatment.

Tests indicate bottled water is often less pure than city water, because city water has tighter regulations. An independent test performed by the Environmental Working Group revealed the presence of 38 low-level contaminants in bottled water, with each of the 10 tested brands containing an average of eight chemicals. They detected disinfection byproducts (DBPs), caffeine, Tylenol, nitrate, industrial chemicals, arsenic, and bacteria.14

When you drink bottled water, not only is the water itself potentially contaminated, but the plastic bottle it comes in may have serious risks of its own from chemicals that leach into the water from the plastic, including bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. In a scientific study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than 1,000 bottles (103 brands) of water were tested for purity. About one-third of the bottles contained synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic.15

Further, companies like Nestle that are bottling water suck most of the water out of nearby streams, turning rivers into mudflats. Lake levels drop and sinkholes form near the bottling plants. Most of these companies pay nothing for the water, or for the damage to the environment – not a penny! Many don't even contribute to local taxes. And yet, these companies make upwards of $1.8 million per day in profits. And this doesn't even touch on the environmental pollution caused by all those tossed out plastic bottles… so bottled water is clearly not the answer.

A Simple Solution: Bring Your Own Water!

If you're not willing to take your chances on a public drinking fountain and you don't want to waste your money and add to environmental pollution by choosing bottled water, there's a simple alternative – bring your own reusable water bottle that you fill at home. At your home, I strongly recommend using a high-quality water filtration system unless you can verify the purity of your water. To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

As for the water bottle, my personal favorite, and the kind I use myself, is glass. Glass is non-toxic and does not leach any undesirable contaminants. Simply fill it up from your filtered tap at home and you'll have a supply of fresh, pure water to last you all day.