Like so many mothers, I don’t allow my children to use public water fountains. On those rare occasions when we forget to bring our own drinking water to the park, my kids look at me in dismay. “I’m not going to touch it, mom,” they assure me every single time and my answer is always the same: “maybe not but everybody else has put their mouth and dirty hands all over it.”
Turns out it was a kid who, some years back, exposed the dirty truth behind drinking water fountains. What started as a simple school project ended up on national television, and the discovery was startling: the school’s toilet bowls were cleaner than the water fountains. No wonder it made the news!
While we would never consider drinking from the toilet, millions of kids are using water fountains at school every day, including my own when I’m not around!
Contaminated drinking water fountains
Once you get over this disgusting fact, it makes perfect sense. Toilets are cleaned frequently (yes, even at school!), but how often have you seen a water fountain being cleaned? Ironically, the modern water fountain was invented in the early 1900s by a sanitary inspector in California who aimed to increase hygiene at schools and eliminate the practice of sharing cups of water. The company he created, Haws Sanitary Drinking Faucet Company, recently celebrated its centenary.
We can’t just blame dirty little hands; water fountains and water coolers in public places and offices have been tested for bacteria with similar results.
Professor Charles Gerba, a microbiologist of the University of Arizona, also known as Dr. Germ, has uncovered the astounding lack of hygiene caused by heavy adult traffic. Author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of scientific articles, he has exposed the grimy surfaces in the workplace.
Keyboards, microwave doors, water cooler buttons and phones were among the dirtiest surfaces tested by Dr. Germ, as part of the Healthy Workplace Project, sponsored by Kimberly-Clark Professional. After more than a decade of germ chasing, this microbiologist declares the average workplace has 21,000 bacteria per square inch, compared to the average office toilet with 49 bacteria per square inch.
Hygiene has a greater impact on human health and mortality, says Dr. Germ, than all the vaccines and antibiotics.
Nothing that frequent surface cleaning with disinfectant products won’t solve, but what about the water itself? What are the dangers lurking in our drinking water? Are they the result of all this mishandling or should we look up the pipes for the culprit?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overlooks the nation’s water system and enforces Maximum Contaminant Levels. Community water systems are required to report yearly to customers on the quality of water in the so-called Customer Confidence Reports.
Dangers in our drinking water
Although tap water is generally considered safe, the level of the following contaminants must be monitored regularly according to EPA guidelines:
- Microorganisms including giardia, coliform bacteria and viruses, which may cause gastrointestinal illnesses; as well as Legionella, responsible for a type of pneumonia.
- Chemicals and minerals: arsenic, asbestos, cyanide, cadmium, nitrate, lead or pesticides; radium, radon and uranium.
- Disinfectants used to treat drinking water such as chlorine or bromate.
Erosion from natural deposits in the soil, discharge from industry, corrosion from plumbing systems, sewage contamination and the products used to treat drinking water are all behind this contamination.
In addition, there are reports of traces of prescription medicines in our tap water. Not surprising, the FDA has determined the preferred disposal method for some drugs is flushing them down the toilet; the agency explains however, that medication residue in our water system comes mainly from drugs that people take, pass through their body and into waste waters.
Pregnant women, children and all those who have a compromised immune system, like people with HIV and chemotherapy patients, must be especially cautious about the safety of the water they consume. Recurrent intestinal illnesses or a change in taste may signal a problem with the safety of your tap water. If this is a concern, the EPA recommends testing home water. For instructions on how to do this, click here.
Funny tasting drinking water led Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech to discover high levels of lead in the piping. This dangerous heavy metal was traced back to the brass components of the plumbing system in the new building of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While these components met current standards at the time, more rigorous criteria have been implemented by the National Sanitation Foundation, cutting back on the allowed percentage of lead in brass fixtures.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does acknowledge the fact that high lead content can be found in tap water, mainly as a result of corrosion of older pipes. To minimize exposure, the CDC recommends flushing the system, whenever water has been sitting for more than six hours in the pipes, by running the tap on “Cold” for a few minutes. This should be done before drinking and cooking. For complete instructions from the CDC click here.
Lead contamination is linked to ADHD symptoms in children, as well as kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults. For those concerned with the safety of their tap water, installing a filtration system may be the solution. From the affordable water pitchers equipped with a filter, to point-of-entry filtration systems, look for one that is certified to meet EPA standards. The National Sanitation Foundation, an independent testing organization that certifies water products, is a good place to start.