Original Article

Lead and Copper in Drinking Water Fountains – Information for Physicians

Authors: Irina Cech, PHD, Michael H. Smolensky, PHD, Masoud Afshar, MS, Gregory Broyles, BS, Matthew Barczyk, BS, Keith Burau, PHD, Robert Emery, DRPH

Abstract

Background: Lead and copper are potentially toxic metals. The objective of our work was to test the water from the drinking fountains of a large public access office complex in southwest Houston, Texas, for the presence of lead, copper, and microbiologic contamination. The data for the water fountains were compared with what we found in the local municipal drinking water supplies.


Methods: Samples were collected as the first draw at the beginning of the work week. These samples were acidified to prevent the precipitation of heavy metals and analyzed using United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) approved procedures and quality control.


Results: Traces of lead were detected in 37.5% and copper in 100% of the tested water fountains. In two buildings, concentrations in some fountains exceeded the USEPA action level for lead (by up to 12-fold) and for copper (by up to 3.9 fold). One sample was positive for total coliform and Escherichia coli bacteria. Comparison with samples from the local municipal drinking water supplies indicated that both metals and bacteria were the result of secondary contamination at the water fountain sites.


Conclusions: This study showed that drinking water fountains can be an unexpected and unappreciated source of intake of metal and bacterial contaminants.


Key Points


* Water fountains, which are the freestanding or wall-mounted chilled drinking water dispensers, have been in use for almost a century.


* Water fountains were originally developed to protect the public health and prevent people from spreading infection through sharing a drinking cup.


* Lead, copper, and bacteria were found to be present in several drinking water fountains at or above the levels expected in public water supplies.


* Comparison with samples from municipal drinking water in the same area indicated that both metals and bacteria were acquired as a secondary contamination directly at the water fountains.


* The findings underscore the necessity for proper maintenance and testing of water fountains, with corrective actions to prevent risk to the public.


* Physicians need to be aware that drinking water fountains can be an unexpected and unnecessary source of lead, copper, and bacteria in public access buildings.

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