The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 21, 2010

Will You Drink From A Public Water Fountain?

While traveling, I bring my stainless steel travel mug or water bottle with me for everything from water to soda to coffee.  On the cross country trip with my dad, I ended up with some plastic, but none of it was plastic bottles or cups.  In 7-Elevens and mini marts across the country, I brought my reusable mug and asked if I could fill it up with coffee or water or soda.  Not one person refused.  And sometimes, if they were available, I’d fill up from free water fountains.

fill bottle from water fountain at airportAt the airport, you can bring your mug or water bottle through security empty and fill it at the water fountain on the other side.  I make this suggestion regularly when asked about staying hydrated on planes.  But lately, I’ve been getting questions about whether or not water fountains are safe to drink from.

Elizabeth Royte, author of the excellent book, Bottlemania, which I highly recommend, wants to know what you think on the issue.  On the web site, Adventures in Climate Change, she asks if you’d drink from a public fountain.  And she also describes a new experimental  initiative in New York City to add more public water fountains.

It’s an important question.  How can we support our public water infrastructure if we are not willing to drink from public sources? When I was a kid, bottled water didn’t exist.  Everyone drank from fountains.  Now? Not so much.  So please answer the question and leave a comment with your thoughts.  We both want to know what you think.

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Charles Chase III
6 years ago

I got sick twice these past few months drinking from water fountains, also water fountains have not always been the most cleanest thing since highschool, there would be some days when school is canceled because the water was brown or inoperable. It is rare for me to find a water fountain that has good tasting water

9 years ago

The water fountains around here are always dirty and when I used to drink from them as a kid, I always got a nasty “spit” after taste afterwards.
Today I don’t even touch water fountains. If I really need to keep hydrated, I’ll bring some water with me for the day.

sean@soda fountain machine
12 years ago

yes i would drink from a public fountain. people make such a big deal out of this trivial thing. some of them have dirtier houses than a public fountain

13 years ago

I watched the documentary “FOOD INC” yesterday and its changed my way of looking at food; from processed cr@p to organic everything (where possible), and I hope that if we all change to this way of eating organic “everything” will be available. Your site has changed the way I think about plastic. Trying to change “big corporate” america is never easy. You’d think that its more economical to at least use less plastic is packaging to save costs? My question is, if you have to choose from paper or plastic at the supermarket, is it better for the environment to go paper?

13 years ago

Here in Newfoundland our university has installed new water fountains with refrigerated water and two taps. One is for water bottles and thus no mouths will touch it and the other is a spicket for a quick drink if you need one. Recently they banned bottled water from the premises and had a “switch in your plastic bottle for a steel one” kiosk set up. I use these fountains a lot.

7 years ago
Reply to  Kayla

Hi Kayla,

I found what you wrote very interesting as I am writing an article regarding similar fountains for a university in the US. Although it’s been five years, I wondered if I could contact you about the initiatives taken to conserve plastic usage as well as water at your university/alma mater?

Thank you!


13 years ago

I drink from any fountain any where. In certain locations- like in Bear Mountain State Park NY recently- one expects the water to be a bit mud-tasting but it’s water and it’s public and it’s there and I drink it. I figure it can’t be worse than the plastic version.

13 years ago

Before we stopped paying for cable, I saw a show on the food network (starring Ted from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy) where they debunked (or proved) food myths. He was talking about how the design of public water fountains, with the water arcing out — shooting first up and out into the air — means that the water you drink is pretty much germ-free. A bigger concern for germs is actually the water cooler, where the water, and any germs, falls straight into your cup, and people are likely to touch the spigot with their germy hands. Since I believe whatever TV tells me (it is very good we got rid of the TV), I henceforth felt perfectly safe drinking from water fountains. And I am a major germaphobe who hadn’t drunk from fountains in years. As far as I know, all my germs come from preschool via my son.

13 years ago

I had an experience where I took a drink from my school’s water fountain. There was something gross clogging the drain but I needed some water ASAP. Later I found out it was dip. Gross.

13 years ago

I will absolutely drink from any public water fountain and have all my life. The water is city or state or county water, and therefore must meet strict water quality standards, so I’m not worried. As for the concerns that some little kid put their mouth all over the fountain, I don’t, so no worries about germs. And doesn’t exposure to germs strengthen our immune system anyways? That’s my belief at least.

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
13 years ago

I have filled my bottles at fountains.

13 years ago

I definitely drink out of water fountains! I just did some traveling myself and used the fountains to fill up my stainless steel water bottle at the airport after security. And I saw someone else doing it too, which was very exciting!

13 years ago

I will drink out of them. If they are outdoors, the sun will kill any germs. I don’t like the cold indoor ones. They are too cold.

I do no fill up my own container. The water tastes too bad to drink that much of it. If I drink directly from the fountain I hold my breath and then can’t taste it as much. Water tastes terrible where I live, even in the backcountry it tastes terrible.

Amy K.
13 years ago

I’ve read enough stories like this one about the germs in drinking fountains to be a little leery. That said, I do still drink from them regularly, but if there are two I’ll take the one that looks like it hasn’t been used. Usually the lower one for people in wheelchairs or small children is bone dry and in my mind germ free.

I’ll also refill my mug from the bathroom faucet, though I have seen a few public restrooms with “no potable water” signs, generally at rest stops in remote areas. At the office I usually choose the Culligan water in a dispenser (yes, bottled water in the big jugs) because it tastes better than the bathroom water, and if I’m making green tea the Culligan dispenses hot water at the right temp.

Though at the office the Culligan is probably germier than the bathroom faucet, because people refill their plastic water bottled by putting the mouth of the bottle right over the water spigot, getting their backwash water on the spigot for the next person.

13 years ago

One more for yes, I drink from fountains, indoors outdoors. I fill my bottle from the side nozzle usually segregated for dogs and such, since it’s much easier that fumbling with low pressure.

I have fond memories of Italy, where the fountains were all potable and everyone took part, even the squeemish Americans..

13 years ago

I do drink from drinking fountains but I’ll just echo what people have been saying that it would be so much more appealing if people were not letting their dogs drink by licking the faucet. Ugh people–come on! Still, I’m pro-drinking fountains–let’s have more!

13 years ago

There are not water fountains like that in Germany, and as far as I know (as far as I can remember) never have been.
I refill my bottle in public bathrooms. Sometimes that’s not possible because there is not enough place to crank my bottle under the faucet, but most of the times that is no problem.
Look at the positive influence you’ve had on my life: most of my friends gave me selfmade stuff like jam or ‘experiences’ (like: a great day at the beach, etc) for my birthday this year, and hardly any plastic!

Beth, thank you for your blog!

13 years ago

I have no problem drinking out of some water fountains. If they look like they’re being maintained, then it’s not an issue. However, most of the outdoor fountains at parks and the like around here have been claimed by the vast transient population who have repurposed them as showers. After you’ve seen someone washing their hair in one or letting their dog drink out of, you tend to shy away.

Anita Kaiser
13 years ago

I used to drink from water fountations and would have still until one day I was at my local park and saw that all the neighbours in my hood let their dogs drink from the fountain. And I don’t mean got them a drink and brought it down – they let their big dogs stand up and lick from that fountain.

Needless to say – after that I wasn’t so much interested in filling my bottle there or having my 4 year old enjoy the novelty of the fountain.

13 years ago

The corporations that bottle water have convinced us to buy their product by telling us tap water is unsafe and fountains and other public sources of water harbor “germs” (despite the fact that so many of them come from public sources). People buy into this, even though there is absolutely no evidence that drinking fountain water or tap water carries a risk of actually contracting an illness. I find it amazing how people worry about germs from the strangest places, and yet, studies show that a majority of people in North America do not wash their hands after using the restroom, a practice that has been shown time and time and time again to be one of the most important tools in reducing respiratory and gastrointestinal disease. I guess there is no money to be made trying to convince people to wash their hands, so that goes out the window. As one commentor posted, our perception of risk/benefit has been totally skewed.

Yes, I drink from fountains, and have never had a problem with doing so.

13 years ago

I don’t have a problem with public drinking fountians. Like others have said, those that aren’t filled with trash and don’t have gum stuck to the spicket don’t bother me. Even if they are outside.

I think the problem with the general population of the US is that they have been conditioned to be germaphobes. Big corporations have made tons of money by making people afraid of touching anything in the public sphere let a lone drinking from the fountians.

Beyond providing more public fountians we need to educate the public about the fact that the world isn’t going to kill them. You can live outside a buble without covering yourself in hand sanatizer.

13 years ago

I have never noticed water fountains around airports in NZ or the few countries I have been too… where are they??? But usually when travelling I’ll fill my bottle up in the hotel bathroom (or kitchenette if there is one) for the day. ofcourse this never actually lasts the whole day.

However, there are fountains all around my university in Wellington. so i fill up from those ALL THE TIME. It helps that they also have a long tap connected to them specifically for filling up bottles so i don’t have to hold it right up to the spigot.

13 years ago

umh, why not? it’s kinda like a duh question to me. I guess germaphobia has reached this far. But to be fair, many water fountains are badly maintained and so the arc of water is very small and you have to get uncomfortably close to the spigot to get at it, so a plea to all municipal governments to please maintain water fountains!

13 years ago

I think the reader who points out this is probably a skewed result because of your reader database is probably correct…but I agree that public fountains are fine (unless clearly soiled/trash filled/etc.) We are lucky to have access to water wherever we go – and here’s another shocker…we drink our tap water!

13 years ago

I truly have no problem drinking from any public fountain, indoors or out, doesn’t matter. Of course, if there’s gum smeared across the water spigot, or other questionable substances, I move on. My lips only touch the water, so not so concerned about germs.

13 years ago

I truly have no problem drinking from any public fountain, indoors or out, doesn’t matter. Of course, if there’s gum smeared across the water spigot, or other questionable substances, I move on. My lips only touch the water, so no so concerned about germs.

Billy O
13 years ago

Public water fountains bother me a bit, but I will drink from them if they appear clean enough, although I find it just as easy to take my stainless steel water bottle and refill it at a convenience store.

The worst that I have run across doing so is a store that charged me 80 cents for filling my bottle with ice water. I was fine with that since I understand that the store needs to make money too, and I carry my bottle as a way to avoid waste and keep chemicals out of my diet rather than an attempt to avoid paying for water or other beverages.

13 years ago

Not if I can avoid it, and here’s why:

I get headaches. It’s not all water fountains, though. The water fountains at the University of South Florida, no matter how tempting, gave me a headache every time. The gym I attend has 3 water fountains. The one in the locker room and the one upstairs seem fine. However the one just at the entrance to the locker room guarantees me a pounding headache later in the day.

I’m not a germaphobe (I abhor hand sanitizer and let me child eat food off the floor), but I DO have to be realistic about my experience. Generally, I prefer to bring my own water to the gym or wherever, but I drink quite a bit of fluid in a day. I’m always thirsty (and no, I’m not diabetic), and therefore I am just about always only a few steps away from a glass or reusable bottle of water.

As an aside, I’d also like to add that certain delivered water dispensers are not as desirable as they seem. I used to work at a marina, and some of the employees brought their large breed dogs to work. When the dogs got thirsty, they would let them drink from the water cooler like a fountain, licking all over the nozzle. So, if you are somewhere where this is a possibility…don’t drink the water.

Melissa @ HerGreenLife
13 years ago

Public water fountains are a great asset. While running errands by bicycle in the sweltering heat last week, I refilled my water bottle at every opportunity. I stayed hydrated without having to lug around a gallon of water :)

Lara S.
13 years ago

There are no such things as public water fountains in Argentina any more (or at least not where I live). When I was little, there used to be, and I remember drinking from them. They were pretty dirty though, since they were located outdoors in parks. The water came out constantly from them, there was no button to push. So birds could easily drink and bathe in them! Not very higienic. I haven’t seen a fountain that actually has water flowing from it, since years ago. Now that I think about it… maybe they were made for birds to use them, and not humans…? yuck!
I’d really like to have access to drinking fountains because when I ask someone from a coffeashop to fill my bottle sometimes they take the bottle to the back to fill it, and I can’t see what they’re doing. I just have to trust they’re not putting anything else than water in my bottle.

By the way just a week ago I finally found a stainless steel water bottle in Argentina!! I was just amazed. I had already asked in every camping store in two different cities and all they offered was aluminum or plastic. But then suddenly, at Buenos Aires bus station… there it was!! I’m going to buy one for my mom, too. So happy!! :D

13 years ago

of course i would drink from a public fountain! i had never even really thought of the fact that some people wouldn’t!

the problem is there are hardly any around! when i was in italy there were fountains everywhere…people even drank out of the big fountains in the piazzas! like, directly out of them – just stuck their head under the water. awesome.

Kayla K
13 years ago

I never even thought about this issue until you brought it up… doesn’t everyone drink from public water fountains?
I guess I prefer to drink from my water bottle or cup filled from the fountain. But I would never never buy a bottle of water if there was a water fountain around.

Sofia's Ideas
13 years ago

We try our best to bring our stainless steel water bottles everywhere we go, for sure. But when we run out while we are out, I do allow our family to refill from public fountains. Its not my first choice; I’d rather the water be filtered at home first, but I feel confident that my children’s immune systems are strong enough to handle it.

13 years ago

All the time!
In fact, I make a point of it because I want to support public access to free water.
My daughter’s daycare has them all over the building, some child height and some with step stools.
It’s just like a tap, with water coming from the municipal water system, so unless you put your lips on the spout part, I can’t see how it will spread germs. The water always run a few seconds before you can get to drink anyhow!

When filling my bottles at cafes and other places, I sometimes run into the server wanting to fill a disposable cup to pour into mine. I watch for this and stop them. It helps if your bottle identifies its size so they can charge you for the right quantity.

Thanks for this post! Water justice is so critical, and public fountains are an important piece of that.

Rebecca The Greeniac
13 years ago

Hey! I thought I’d do a search because I can’t be the only person to think of the water bottle with a built in filter. Look what I found:

Rebecca The Greeniac
13 years ago

Hmmm… like many others I vastly prefer the taste of filtered water, but would choose water from a fountain over water from plastic any day! Is it just me? Can’t people taste the horrible plastic taste from bottled water?

Maybe somebody should invent a stainless steel water bottle with a built in filter!

13 years ago

I can’t really answer that question properly since I wouldn’t drink from a water fountain that has obviously been touched inappropriately (that sounds funny in a way I did not intend it to :P) by someone else’s lips or such, as has been mentioned by others commenting on this post. I would most readily drink from a water fountain with a high arc of water.

My biggest issue is that I’ve never seen a drinking fountain in my life. Never. I had no idea such things existed before I saw them in American high school films, to be truthful. There just doesn’t seem to be such a thing in Sweden. Quite understandably, I’d say, because they’d freeze right through during the winter months. Unless there’s a solution to that, somehow.

Our Red House
13 years ago

I have no difficulty drinking from water fountains, and I don’t think the anti-fountain phobia exists to the same degree in Australia. However, unfortunately bottled water is becoming popular here too – which is a shame.

13 years ago

My kids and I drink from water fountains – indoors and out – all the time.

You know what? We’ve never got sick from them, and never will.

Besides – where would do people think water comes from anyway? The sky, rivers, and catchments.

I’d be far more worried about contamination from a plastic bottle than anything that theoretically might be lurking on a water fountain!

Where does all this silly paranoia come from anyway?

13 years ago

I have used a Brita filter in several places I have lived, but if the city uses flouride I have bottled water delivered. (Not really happy with it .) Anyone know of a way to get the flouride out?? (A number of years ago water could be delivered in 5 gallon glass bottles, but no longer.)

13 years ago

Of course I would, the angle of the water in the fountain makes it so that you aren’t getting water from someone else mouth on the spout, its perfectly safe and sanitary. That said there are some gross places where I wouldn’t but in general yes.

13 years ago

I drink from the water fountain all the time. We have beautiful pump-operated fountains in our park that you pump manually and which have a top fountain for drinking, a side spigot for filling containers, and a bottom outlet for dogs.

I will admit that sometimes traveling I’ve gotten to places where the water just tastes so bad I eventually give up and buy some – in southern Illinois I was in a town for a few weeks where all the water was red with rust and smelled like sulphur, and when we were in Vegas this spring, after about 4 days I just couldn’t take the taste of the tap water anymore.

Sarah "Angry Butterfly" Schumm
13 years ago

Why wouldn’t I drink from a water fountain? People are too paranoid these days! How did this happen?
“I might get germs! There might be lead in it! Other people drank from it!”
I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as cooties, did I miss a memo? How on earth did we get to a point where adults act like second graders? Are we really that gullible? Its fucking madness!

I especially love water fountains in parks!

Doesn’t water from fountains in parks taste better than regular tap water? I think It tastes like HAPPINESS! People who won’t drink out of water fountains are nuts. 30 years ago you would seem like a freak if you wouldn’t drink from them.

13 years ago

I drink from fountains and taps all the time.

I don’t know about you but I can taste the plastic in bottled water. It could however be in my mind. I can also taste the minerals in tap water, but that doesn’t bother me at all, it gives water from every place a unique flavour, plus I choose minerals over leeching chemicals.

13 years ago

Yep, I use them all the time. Once you learn what sort of things show up in bottled water, you’d probably prefer to lick the faucet rather then drink from a commercial water service. Public water is highly regulated, bottled water isn’t, and is frequently contaminated with molds, bacteria and other nasty things.

Kathy G
13 years ago

It never occurred to me NOT to drink from a water fountain, although I’ll pass on the ones that don’t have a high arc of water. If my lips have to brush the tip, I figure other people’s have too.

13 years ago

I am not a fan of water fountains, never have been, but that doesn’t stop me from filling my water bottle at airports or when I am out and about. Almost all fountain soda machines have water as a choice and I just fill my bottles up there. I haven’t ever had to pay, haven’t ever been told no, and I never have problems with being unable to fill my bottle due to a low trickle water fountain.

13 years ago

I not only would drink from a public fountain but do very often. Germs don’t scare me. If we all worried about germs, we would all carry around bottles of lysol wipes before drinking. And i choose to build my immune system.

13 years ago

I wrote a letter about his very thing to my university. On our campus we have a water cooler (with the big pastic bottles), a whole bunch of disposable plastic cups and sign that says not to fill up resuable bottles but to use the cups for “hygienic reasons”. I was so disgusted that, inspired by this blog, I put in a proposal to the environmental office of the university that they

a) switch to mains drinking water fountain
b) get rid of the disposable cups
c) distribute/sell/inform people about where to get resusable bottles
d) put up a poster explaining why they’ve done this, and telling people how to fill their resuable bottle hygeinically.

13 years ago

I have to admit, public water fountains gross me out. People stick gum in there, or just let the water run into their mouths and back out like mouthwash, or stick their whole mouth on the spigot. Why? I don’t know.

Frankly I’m not as caught up in the hydration hysteria as a lot of people. That whole thing about “Once you’re thirsty it’s TOO LATE” is totally bogus, as is the thing about drinking “eight 8oz glasses.” The first was concocted by a woo-woo religious nut snake oil salesman/guru, and the second was invented out of thin air for a WWI military health pamphlet.

I’m fine with waiting a little while longer until I can get a proper glass of water – at home, at the restaurant, whatever.

13 years ago

Today Bunny and I decided not to spend almost $30 a piece to go to the aquarium in Chicago and instead went to the free Wagner Farm, a wonderful farm restoration with live animals. There was a double water fountain there for adults and kids – the kind with a cooler built in. I took a drag. It was delicious and ice cold.

Then, as we talked with the employee at the front counter, five feet away from the fountains, I noticed she had a plastic bottle of water.

Then we found a trash bin with a recycling bin next to it. Right on top – in the trash – a plastic water bottle.

It seems we think obsessively of trivialities (germs) while not thinking at all of the obvious (a recycling bin right in front of the eyes).

What’s interesting about the germs obsession is it is based not on the actual water, or on any evidence at all that people get sick from using public drinking fountains, but on the surroundings in which the water is found.

But tap water is tap water, whether it is coming from a faucet in a grungy restroom or from our home faucet. People willingly drink bottled water not knowing a single thing about where it comes from or what is in it!!! But, as we all know, packaging and labels have a huge influence on us (the “crystal geyser”, the “arctic glacier”, etc.

Our minds are playing with us – the imagery that we conjure up in our heads based on everything BUT the water itself.

To me, if there is any message to Beth’s blog, it is that we have to wake up from the imagery and act according to what we know is true about the problems with plastic. While we are saying “yuck” to drinking fountains, and worry over unseen danger that we don’t even know is present, the world warms, wildlife chokes on plastic and the gyres continue to sweep up our mess. We have to change our perspective to break through the tremendously powerful American Lifestyle that rules us.

Before I go, can I put in a plug for my new blog? No, it has nothing to do with anything Beth deals with on FPF, but it does have to do with waking up the American people. Check out Daylight between America and Israel