State and federal governments are implementing new policies requiring schools to provide free drinking water in cafeterias at lunchtime, to promote health and fight obesity. Ideally, schools install “hydration stations” where students fill up reusable bottles with chilled, filtered water. But plenty of schools have to make due with old-fashioned water fountains.
That’s definitely the case at my old high school (I graduated in the spring). A few months before California’s law took effect, I spoke with my principal, Carmelo Sgarlato. He hadn’t heard of it. But even after I told him, Sgarlato said that if it were up to him, there’d be lots of other upgrades that would come before water at our school. “Ventilation,” he said, “way more important in this building because we have no windows that really open. Repairing leaks to cut down mold buildup. Those are two major areas that I would put money into before water.”
Plus, according to both state and federal law, my school is in compliance with the new water policies.The lunchroom water fountain counts. But in the eyes of most students I spoke to, like my friend Jessie Chen, water fountains are just nasty.
When I brought her to the one working water fountain in the cafeteria, she was not psyched to drink it. “Yeah,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to use it. It’s pretty dirty. There’s some uh—I don’t know what’s in there but it’s pretty bad.” The fountain, which is covered in stains, is so lacking in water pressure that you practically have to make out with it, to get a drink.
Throughout the school, there are signs above most fountains instructing students to run the water for 30 seconds before drinking. And both the custodian and my principal told me janitors run the fountains every morning for 15 minutes, to “flush the pipes.” Makes you wonder how safe the water really is.
That’s why I asked Darleen Franklin, a researcher at San Francisco State University, to test the bacterial content of fountains at my school. “I expect microbes on there,” said Franklin before testing the water, “ because so many students I’m sure probably put their mouths on there.”
Franklin gave me a bunch of sterile containers, latex gloves and disinfectant wipes, and showed me how to collect samples. After a week of running around, gathering water, I finally returned to the lab to get results.
In one sample, we found micrococcus colonies from a fountain in my school’s hallway. It’s a skin bacterium that can, under certain conditions, cause pitted feet. Gross I know, but totally drinkable at the levels we found.
But it’s not just bacteria kids worry about. “I hear there’s tons of lead in the school’s main water system,” said 18-year-old Aidan Offerman, when I asked if he drank from the school’s fountains. “So I try to shy away from that.”
In case Offerman was onto something, we also tested my school’s water for lead. All the samples were under the 20 parts per billion that would take it out of service under EPA guidelines . So at my school at least, students are better off drinking from the rundown fountains than hitting vending machines for so-called “juice drinks.” But that’s a hard sell, given student perceptions. “If I was very very thirsty or felt dizzy,” my classmate Isa Defusco said, “I would probably go and drink some, but I avoid it pretty much at all costs.”
Students aren’t just being paranoid. Scientists have found elevated lead levels in school districts from Philadelphia to Seattle. And with no federal policy requiring schools like mine to test their water, it’s hard for thirsty kids to know whether the supply is safe. So until water fountains, like elevators, get little plaques certifying they pass muster, plenty of kids won’t trust the free, fresh water in their school cafeterias. Policy or not.