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Public Drinking Fountains Are Disappearing, and That’s a Bad Thing

Bottling water divorces people from caring about keeping public water supply clean

(Jeff Turner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0))
smithsonian.com

Whether they're called drinking fountains, water fountains or bubblers, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life. But if those fixtures are broken, dirty or even unused-looking, drinking from them can seem unappealing. Perhaps as a result, drinking fountains have become endangered in recent years and that’s a problem, according to Kendra Pierre-Louis for The Washington Post.

Ancient Greek and Roman cities often had sculptures where passers-by could fill up a jug with water, but the first dedicated drinking fountain may have been one installed in London in 1859, writes Joe Satran for The Huffington Post. Fountains soon spread to many cities in America and chlorination drastically cut down on deaths from contaminated water. 

For a while, Pierre-Louis writes, drinking fountains were a more popular source of water than bottled water. But the trend reversed and today drinking fountains are, by all accounts, disappearing. "Though no one tracks the number of public fountains nationally, researchers say they’re fading from America’s parks, schools and stadiums," she writes.

Pierre-Louis points to several studies that suggest the switch is bad for both the environment and for the health of Americans:

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.

The reliance on bottled water rather than fountains also has serious environmental effects. According to the Earth Policy Institute, it takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil to create the 50 billion plastic water bottles Americans use each year. (That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars for a year.) Less than a quarter of those bottles are recycled. And these statistics don’t even account for the fuel used in transporting the water around the country and the world.

Is there a solution? Old water fountains that are broken or dirty certainly don’t help. Perhaps persuading cities that maintaining water fountains or even installing new ones (with creative designs) would be well worth the cost and effort.

Public water fountains can even save money — treating and delivering tap water is less expensive than bottled water, writes Nancy Stoner for "Our Planet, Our Home" a blog from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The challenge is in getting people to recognize the trouble with losing public drinking fountains. If people feel attached to the water in their city, where they live, they may be more concerned about protecting it.

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