Our Costly Neglect of Drinking Fountains

drinking water fountain

Drinking fountain in a botanical garden

Have you thought much about drinking fountains, or even seen one lately?

They used to be everywhere—in all kinds of public buildings and in parks. Building codes specified how many drinking fountains a public building should have.

They still do, but this year the International Plumbing Code cut its number in half. Building codes in most American cities follow the IPC’s recommendations.

We don’t see as many drinking fountains in recent decades. People buy bottled water instead. That’s bad for the environment and not especially good for public health. 

A little background on drinking fountains

drinking water fountain

Common cup drinking fountain, wall of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London

Running water and fountains date back to antiquity, but no one thought of building a fountain for individual people to drink from until the first modern drinking fountain was built in London in 1859.

London had taken drinking water from the Thames for centuries, but industrialization, a burgeoning population, and untreated wastes flowing into the river rendered it unfit to drink.

Provision of free, filtered water came in response to a cholera outbreak. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association raised private money for the construction of public drinking fountains.

A spigot created a constant stream of fresh water, which flowed into a basin. The basin contained a metal cup, attached by a chain to the structure. Anyone who was thirsty could drink from the cup and put it back into the water.

Does that seem disgusting? It’s an illustration of the human tendency to build something and think of the consequences later, to solve one problem by creating another down the road. The idea of germs was not yet widely known, and people simply assumed that running water would wash them off.

The idea of the drinking water fountain took off quickly in London and spread slowly to other major cities worldwide. As public health studies began to demonstrate that the common cup spread disease, almost every state in the US passed laws to ban it between 1909 and 1912.

Disposable paper cups seemed like a good substitute for a while, but a new design called the “sanitary drinking fountain” soon became common. Instead of the spigot directing the water down into a basin, it shot a stream of water straight up into the air. People could drink uncontaminated water, and what had touched their lips would flow down the drain.

That design satisfied until it became apparent that some people put their lips directly on the spigot, thus defeating the purpose. Around 1920, the modern design became popular, with the water aimed at about a 45-degree angle. A mouth guard above the spigot prevented people from touching it with their lips, or at least made it very difficult.

The whole idea of a drinking fountain was to provide sanitary drinking water to the public. In the 1960s and ’70s it became apparent that some US municipalities’ water treatment was so bad that their water was a health hazard. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 has solved that problem. It requires municipalities to test the water regularly and report test results to the public annually.

The menace of bottled water

bottled water

Bottled water in a supermarket

As chlorinated municipal water supplies became more common, companies that sold bottled water went out of business.

By the 1930s, only offices and factories that couldn’t afford plumbing bought it. Bottled water seemed low class in the US.

In the 1970s, Perrier sparkling water was introduced to the US and became a big hit with yuppies. Its success induced other companies to come out with their own brands of bottled water. At first, the companies used glass bottles, but eventually changed to the now ubiquitous plastic bottles.

Those reports from municipal water supplies were supposed to assure the public of the water’s safety by reporting that contaminants were within legal limits. Too much of the public does not understand that humans cannot produce anything without contaminants.

All those annual reports with numbers attached to a long list of unfamiliar words began to make people question the safety of municipal water at the same time it had become certifiably safe for the first time in history.

Advertisers quickly exploit fear. Water bottlers immediately questioned the safety of tap water, one even calling it poison. Much of the public believed the ads and now seems to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water.

By law you have to be told what’s in your municipal water, but do you know what’s in your bottled water? You will not find information about the contaminants in bottled water because bottlers are not required to disclose it. Municipal water is subject to more stringent regulations than bottled water.

Why do I call bottled water a menace?

  • It became successful in part through deceptive advertising.
  • Bottlers in California, which is suffering from historic drought, ship California’s water all over the country.
  • Drinking fountains have begun to seem like a budgetary inconvenience instead of a public health necessity. Lack of drinking fountains forces more and more people to find something else to drink.
  • Venues that sell bottled water often see no reason to install drinking fountains. When an outdoor stadium without drinking fountains runs out of bottled water on a  hot day, fans start to experience heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.
  • Americans now drink more bottled water than beer or milk.
  • Bottled water costs about 2900 times more than household tap water—and drinking fountains are free to use. Making bottled water a necessity—or even seem like a necessity—places an unreasonable financial burden on the poor.
  • But bottled water is not the only alternative people turn to in the absence of convenient drinking fountains. Sugary drinks contribute to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
  • Bottled water uses valuable petroleum to make a container that becomes junk as soon as it’s empty. Those bottles are potentially a valuable resource for making new products, but most of them go into the waste stream rather than the recycling stream.
  • Empty bottles take up valuable and non-renewable landfill space—assuming litterers don’t simply dump them by the side of the road.
  • Plastic litter will eventually get into streams and cause a variety of environmental problems, including local flooding.
  • Besides the petroleum needed to make the bottles, transporting them to and from the bottling plant to various warehouses to stores uses even more of it. We import about a third of our petroleum from geopolitical adversaries.

If you have never thought of these issues, please start now.

If you already knew the information in this post, please make sure you pass the word on to your friends and family.

13 Weird Moments in the History of Water Fountains / Joe Satran (Huffington Post, January 14, 2015)
We Don’t Trust Drinking Fountains Any More, and That’s Bad for Our Health / Kendra Pierre-Louis (Washington Post, July 8, 2015)

Photo credits:
Drinking fountain in botanical garden. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Drinking fountain at Theatre Royal. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Bottled water in a supermarket. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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