If you’ve pledged to cut back on single-use plastics, water fountains make a sound alternative to a store bought bottle of water. But experts say that in some settings, water fountains can do more harm than good, depending on whether their hygiene is maintained. In fact, a recent study says there’s one location in which water fountains tend to be teeming with bacteria, including the skin-infection causing MRSA. Read on to find out why you should never drink from a water fountain in this one place—at least not before cleaning it thoroughly first.
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Water fountains are often viewed as vectors for the spread of germs. Now, a 2019 study published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases confirms that this theory is true in at least one location: your gym.
The team analyzed 288 surface samples from 16 athletic facilities across Northeastern Ohio, testing for Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Alarmingly, they learned that water fountains were among the most contaminated objects they reviewed: 50 percent of water fountain samples revealed the presence of S. aureus or MRSA.
Experts from Penn State say these are not the only potential threats living on water fountain surfaces. “There are many damaging pathogens that live in water fountains, which cause people to get sick. E-coli, legionella, and coliform are three types of bacteria found in water fountains,” they write.
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Water fountains tied with treadmill handles as the fourth-most germ-infested items in the gym. Just three objects were found to be more contaminated—weight balls (62 percent), curl bars (62 percent), and weight plates (56 percent)—each of them high-touch surfaces that frequently go un-sanitized after use.
The researchers said it was “interesting” to learn that all of these items had far more germs than bathroom surfaces, which are widely considered unhygienic. Specifically, toilet levers and bathroom door handles in the sampled gyms were contaminated with S. aureus at a rate of 18 percent.
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Experts say that if water fountains pose a threat, it’s not likely due to the water itself, which is usually meticulously monitored for contaminants. Instead, The New York Times notes that “the parts most likely to be contaminated are those touched by hands—the rim and the handle. As is true of subway poles, doorknobs, computer keyboards and many other surfaces touched by hands, they can harbor any of dozens of bacteria or viruses transmitted by feces, mucus or coughs,” their experts write.
In other words, if you’re concerned about drinking from the water fountain at your gym, most of the threat can be neutralized by first sanitizing any part you plan to touch. Treat the water fountain like every other piece of equipment in the gym by wiping it down before and after each use, and by washing your hands afterward.
According to the CDC, creating good hygiene habits at the gym could help curb the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. “MRSA spreads easily in athletic facilities, locker rooms, gyms, and health clubs,” their experts write.
They note that while “anyone can get MRSA,” athletes are more likely to contract it since “risk increases with activities or places that involve crowding, skin-to-skin contact, and shared equipment or supplies.” To help keep your gym safe, be sure to sanitize any surfaces you touch, wash your hands often, bring your own clean towels, and avoid touch contact with others.
And, when it comes to cleaning, don’t forget to include the non-equipment items that may fly under the radar for others. Otherwise, the water fountain handle at your gym may be no cleaner than that of a toilet.
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