A commentary on drinking water fountains in the US

Last Wednesday’s Washington Post contained an interesting commentary on the demise of the drinking water fountain. Given the propensity of some Canadian municipalities and building managers to move towards drinking water fountains, and the pressure from some environmental groups to move towards drinking fountains and away from bottled water, GallonDaily found the article to be interesting social commentary.

Among the numerous good points made in the opinion piece:

  • Water fountains have been disappearing from public spaces throughout the country over the last few decades,” lamented Nancy Stoner, an administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency’s water office. Water scholar Peter Gleick writes that they’ve become “an anachronism, or even a liability.” Jim Salzman, author of “Drinking Water: A History,” says they’re “going the way of pay phones.”
  • In the 2015 edition of the International Plumbing Code, which lays out recommendations on matters such as the number of bathrooms an office should have and how pipes should work, authors slashed the number of required fountains for each building by half.
  • While U.S. consumption of bottled water quadrupled between 1993 and 2012 (reaching 9.67 billion gallons annually), that’s more a symptom than a cause. The sense today is that drinking water fountains are dangerous, not maintained and are dirty.
  • In response to activist pressure, the US government drafted measures like 1974’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The legislation made water much safer by limiting dumping and setting contaminant standards. But it had an unintended consequence: Because municipalities had to notify residents of contamination immediately, Americans who had grown up trusting tap water were now getting bombarded with warnings of possible risks.
  • Today, 77 percent of Americans are concerned about pollution in their drinking water, according to Gallup, even though tap water and bottled water are treated the same way, and studies show that tap is as safe as bottled.
  • The disappearance of water fountains has hurt public health. Centers for Disease Control researcher Stephen Onufrak has found that the less young people trust water fountains, the more sugary beverages they drink. Studies have found that kids who consume sugary drinks regularly are 60 percent more likely to be obese, and adults who do so are 26 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Like many other environmental issues, that of drinking water fountains is not simple. Installing a drinking water fountain in a space or building not designed for such a system may have a greater environmental impact than use of bulk containers. If usage levels are low, even bottles may have a smaller environmental footprint than a fountain unless there is a water tap nearby. Use of tap water often leads to much greater wastage of water and energy than use of bottled water, provided empty water bottles are recycled. Bottled water has the lowest environmental impact of all packaged beverages, simply because every other packaged beverage, including such drinks as soft drinks, juices, and coffee, contains water plus other substances that lead to it having a higher environmental footprint. Water from a tap or fountain is the best choice for hydration but if no tap or fountain is available then water from a bottle has a lower environmental footprint that any other drink you can buy.

GallonDaily suggests that the factors described in the Washington Post article could be addressed by a new drinking water fountain design that is more technologically advanced than that commonly used in public facilities. A built-in sterilizer for both the water and the bowl, metered dispensing into a recyclable or compostable cup instead of the round ball that is licked by every child and dog, and a temperature controlled water cooling system might be the kind of technology that is needed to restore public trust in public drinking water fountains.

The article We don’t trust drinking fountains anymore, and that’s bad for our health can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-dont-trust-drinking-fountains-anymore-and-thats-bad-for-our-health/2015/07/02/24eca9bc-15f0-11e5-9ddc-e3353542100c_story.html?hpid=z2

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