dangerous or just cheap?
July 9, 2007 1:35 PM   Subscribe

The powers-that-be at my office decided to just refill the water cooler bottles from the tap (actually, the hose in the janitors closet that fills/rinses the mop bucket) instead of paying for the water bottle service. Is this dangerous, or just cheap?

The bottles are never washed out. About half the office (definitely including me) think the water tastes stale and nasty so they fill their own glasses/bottles from the kitchen sink, the other half either don't drink water during the day or don't seem to be able to taste a difference-they just want it cold. Anyway, is this dangerous from a bacterial standpoint? I've read that it's important to wash bottles that are refilled, and these aren't, but is it as important since lips don't touch the neck of the bottle? I'm pretty sure it is but I'd like some second, scientifically sound opinions for when I confront the cheap ass company directors. I'm in England and the tap water isn't chlorinated, if that makes a difference.
posted by cilantro to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, I wouldn't drink it.

I've been told (tho I ignore the info) that it isn't a good idea to refill individual plastic water bottles with tap, so I cannot imagine it's a great idea to do what you have described.
posted by konolia at 1:48 PM on July 9, 2007


There's no danger to refilling it with tap water. How else do you think mankind survived so long without disposable water bottles?

Tell them not to the damn janitor's hose though - that's just gross. Janitors are supposed to be working with foul, dirty things - it's their job.

Worst case scenario - spend a fiver and buy a clean hose yourself to be used for refilling the water that you drink.
posted by unixrat at 1:51 PM on July 9, 2007


Is it safe to drink from my garden house? No. I wouldn't even think about a mop sink hose.
posted by OmieWise at 1:51 PM on July 9, 2007


Since tap water is arguably safer than bottled water, (at least in the US) I supect you're fine. I imagine the UK would be even more particular with testing drinking water.
posted by mullingitover at 1:53 PM on July 9, 2007


I think part of the issue would be whether the bottles were designed to be refilled; if I understand correctly, that's the main issue with refilling individual plastic water bottles, that the plastic's just not made sturdily enough to be used over and over again.

I have no idea if most water-cooler places clean and reuse those bottles, or if they're destroyed after one use. Is that something you can track down on your water-cooler company's website?

(I agree that there are separate issues with using a janitor's hose to refill it.)
posted by occhiblu at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2007


I have no idea if most water-cooler places clean and reuse those bottles,

They most certainly do and they charge you a deposit for them as well.
posted by IronLizard at 2:00 PM on July 9, 2007


Is the water treated in some other way? If the water isn't chlorinated, there is a possibility that introduced bacteria can grow. It's probably not a huge risk, especially if you're going through the water pretty quickly, but there is the potential for:

* Guy who fills bottles doesn't wash his hands after using toilet. Bacteria is washed into the water. Water is left alone. Bacteria multiply in unchlorinated environment. Everybody gets diarrhea.

* Janitor mops out bathroom. Fecal bacteria is on floor. Some is left in bucket. Hose end touches bucket. Bacteria introduced to hose. As before.

These are fairly low risk scenarios, but I would argue that the cost of providing water (it can't be that much, can it?) versus a small chance of a lawsuit (I'm in the USA!) for poisoning everybody in the office ....
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:00 PM on July 9, 2007


I have a friend who delivers the water bottles for water coolers that we are refilling, they are sterilized between every use.
Tap water is not the problem, I drink it all day every day, it's the possibility of bacteria in bottles that are refilled with room temperature water every day and never, ever cleaned. It's obviously gross, the question is, can people get sick?
posted by cilantro at 2:02 PM on July 9, 2007


Besides the hose factor, shouldn't the water jugs be sterilized first? While of obviously lower quality, PET bottles (Coke, bottled water, etc) are not meant to be reused as water bottles, because they are porous (relatively) and house bacteria, no matter how hard you try to clean them at home.

Water jugs are going to have to be cleaned before being reused.

Personally, I drink coffee and tea to get my H2O fix. Boil the fucking water!
posted by KokuRyu at 2:17 PM on July 9, 2007


People can definitely get sick, especially if they're using the mop-bucket hose to fill the bottle!

At the very least, they should be using a separate hose rated for drinking water and never used for anything else, and they should rinse the bottle and business-end of the hose with bleach and water between each fill-up. Seems to me that it's easier and safer to get water delivered, or to have somebody rinse out the bottle (as above) and re-fill it from a filtered-water machine rather than a hose (they have these at grocery stores around here, they charge about 35 cents per gallon).

More on standards of bottled-water safety here. Note that they're a lot more stringent than ew-not-the-mop-hose!
posted by vorfeed at 2:23 PM on July 9, 2007


I refill water bottles with tap water, and I know from experience that the bottles can start to grow mold inside after a while. The mold isn't the obvious, brightly colored stuff, either - it's more of a pale brownish slick on the inside of the bottle, and isn't that visible until you run a paper towel or something over it. If I sniff at the neck of the bottle I can usually smell it, but I can't smell it in the water that's poured out. (That's when I rinse with bleachwater or throw the bottle out and buy a new one).
posted by dilettante at 2:24 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


Refilling the bottles with tap water is not a problem. Those bottles are certainly intended to be re-used. Why should you worry about the bottle being refilled with tap water, any more than you should be worried about the water pipes being refilled with tap water (water pipes aren't sanitized after use, of course). I find it very strange that people would find this practice somehow gross.

Now, the refilling method may leave something to be desired if there is a possibility of contamination, but that is a separate issue.
posted by ssg at 2:26 PM on July 9, 2007


cilantro has it. The water isn't the problem, it's the lack of sterilization of the container that might bite you in the ass. Imagine using one water glass forever without washing it out. That's obviously unsanitary, why would this be any different?

If they're still too cheap to spring for the bottled water, a mild chlorine solution once every week or two should be enough. IANASanitation Engineer, ymmv, etc. You might try bugging OSHA, see if they're interested in your story.
posted by Skorgu at 2:34 PM on July 9, 2007


Your employers aren't just being cheap, they're being significantly more environmentally responsible in refilling the water bottle. Tap water is usually healthier than bottled water in the U.S., so the only issue is, as a few folks have pointed out, whether the water bottle is clean. A simple solution would be to get a filling hose for the kitchen tap, which can be used to refill the bottles, and making sure whomever does the refilling rinses out the bottles with a mild detergent in between filling.

In case you don't know, most bottled water services reuse their bottles as well. Comrade_robot's best answer above ignores the incredibly waste of resources that goes into bottled water in a country where tap water is much more strictly regulated and generally of much better quality.
posted by anildash at 2:48 PM on July 9, 2007


I'd argue that getting your water delivered in reusable bottles is the only way to push the burden of liability from the employee who's doing the refilling to a separate corporate entity that can be held liable for damages should you all get cholera and die. It seems like a really foolish thing for a company to do.

Get them to bring the delivery back with the knowledge that what it costs during the week is pennies compared to paying out sick employees in some of Comrade_robot's nightmare scenarios. There's no need for work to be like a refugee camp.
posted by mdonley at 3:04 PM on July 9, 2007


Comrade_robot's best answer above ignores the incredibly waste of resources that goes into bottled water in a country where tap water is much more strictly regulated and generally of much better quality.

I don't doubt that delivering the bottles adds to the environmental cost of a drink of water, but it's worth pointing out that the article you linked to is not talking about the same kind of bottled water we're talking about. The article is about one-use bottles of centrally-manufactured water delivered to supermarkets around the country, not reusable bottles filled with filtered local water and locally delivered. The latter are not nearly as environmentally damaging.
posted by vorfeed at 3:08 PM on July 9, 2007


Bacteria multiply in unchlorinated environment.

First of all, bacteria can't multiply unless they have some food. Bacteria won't grow in a bottle of water, any more than you would grow if you only drank water and never ate anything.

Second of all, tap water isn't pure water - it contains chlorine or chloramine. That makes it bacteriostatic at worst, bactericidal at best. If your tap water's chlorinated, the chlorine will eventually come out of solution over a couple days, leaving the water unprotected; chloraminated tap water will be bacteriostatic for years.

The problem, if any, arises when the bottle of water loses all its chlorine, then gets contaminated. It doesn't take much - a bug crawls into the bottle, a crumb or two falling into the mouth of the bottle from the cracker the janitor's eating - and suddenly you have a high load of some nasty bacteria in your water. The water company deals with this by cleaning their bottles when they're returned, using some combination of heat, soap, water pressure, and sterilizing agents. Your janitor's probably not doing it at all, and that's the major problem here.

A minor problem is that the tip of the hose that is used to fill the mop bucket might be contaminated with fecal bacteria. Frankly, it's more likely that it's contaminated with powerful bactericidal cleaning products that shouldn't be ingested by people.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:58 PM on July 9, 2007


I think it's safe, but amazingly stupid. Just stop using bottled water and drink from the tap. Why would you want to drink from tap water that's be stagnating?
posted by chairface at 4:10 PM on July 9, 2007


In my lab we use filtered water. The filter is in another room, so once every two or three days we refill carbines in the far-away room for storage and use in the lab. Over time, if we don't disinfect the carbines between refills, we get a nice pale green algae-slick on the bottom of the bottle. In the lab I've also seen stock solutions of high salts, denaturants(!) and weak detergent solutions(!) become contaminated if left at room temperature for long-ish periods of time. Microbes will find a way to grow in suprisingly difficult environments.

I'd be mostly concerned with the rate of turn-over in the bottles. If the water is being used quickly and the bottles are being refilled frequently, then the microbes probably don't have time to multipy to dangerous levels. But I have no idea how to quantify that.

Could you request some sort of water testing be done on a day-old bottle, to see if the microbial levels are within acceptable concentrations?
posted by twoporedomain at 4:31 PM on July 9, 2007


This is awesome.

I love examples of thinking that is so short--sighted and/or obtuse that you can see the consequential disaster coming like a freight train.

Your urine is probably a safer source of hydration.
posted by docpops at 4:41 PM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]


It is terribly frustrating that people are so paranoid, and I guess that is why your office is refilling the bottles in the first place - trying to outsmart the obsessive compulsives who only drink bottled water. That is no excuse for intentionally tricking people. Tricking people is bad, even if they are paranoid.


OmieWise: Is it safe to drink from my garden house? No. I wouldn't even think about a mop sink hose.

That link reads more like "We aren't going to tell you it is okay, but it probably is". How many hoses do you know of with lead in them?
posted by Chuckles at 5:33 PM on July 9, 2007


You can buy water dispensers similar to those that take a bottle but attach to the plumbing system (and filter the water). I've seen them for less than a $100 at CostCo.
posted by ShooBoo at 5:35 PM on July 9, 2007


I use a Brita Filtered Pitcher that is stored in the fridge. Every few weeks I need to give it a thorough cleaning because mold that starts to grow inside the pitcher.

BTW, aren't the bottles and the cooler unit owned by the water service and not the office? Here in the US, the service owns all of that and businesses rent them. I would think the service might not want a business mucking with their property.
posted by JJ86 at 6:31 PM on July 9, 2007


Call a local university and ask if they have water testing services. Here in the U.S. (in Georgia,) I had some approx. 50ml samples tested by UGA, drawn from the public elementary schools in my town. (It was a 5th grade science project.) They did the service for no charge and sent back detailed reports about dissolved contents.
posted by ijoshua at 6:31 PM on July 9, 2007


First of all, bacteria can't multiply unless they have some food. Bacteria won't grow in a bottle of water, any more than you would grow if you only drank water and never ate anything.

This is rather incorrect and twoporemembrane gave some good examples how it's incorrect. Unless we're talking about perfectly distilled de-ionized water, something will grow in it. Bacteria, for one thing, can do photosynthesis. We can't.

I've gotten a pretty bad little-green-thingy infection in the bottom of my Brita (the part that only contains filtered tap water). But I've never seen anything like that in a sealed container of tap water. I thought all tap water in the US is chlorinated to prevent that sort of situation.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:00 PM on July 9, 2007


"I'm in England and the tap water isn't chlorinated"

Our office uses a small water filtration system that hooks to the main and filters it on demand. If it were expensive, we wouldn't have it.

Do they have something like a Food Service and Sanitation department in England? Is there someone you could file a complaint with? Garden hoses are not designed to move potable water through, the end of it may have been allowed to sit in dirty water and back siphoned, it's probably crawling with e. coli, and even if somebody was told to sterilize the bottle with chlorine bleach (hypothetically), would you really trust the Trained Toilet Cleaning Person to do a decent job and do it on any kind of regular basis?
posted by unrepentanthippie at 7:22 PM on July 9, 2007


It sounds like what people want is just chilled water. There are better ways to achieve this than refilling bottles, which as other people have alluded to, isn't a great idea.

My office used to have a chiller -- basically just the thing that the water bottle sits on -- permanently hooked up to the tap-water line. It's no harder to set up than a freezer's ice maker.

I've seen them sold occasionally at Costco for $200 or so, IIRC. Aside from occasional cleaning, there's basically no continuous expense, so I'd think it wouldn't be a hard sell to the Powers That Be.

Only downside is unless they have an activated-charcoal filter, they won't remove chlorine from the water. But they will chill it, and sometimes that's the difference between feeling like you're drinking something refreshing, and drinking from the shallow end of a kiddie pool.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:45 PM on July 9, 2007


Theoretically you're supposed to use a white "drinking water" hose instead of drinking from a regular green hose. I'm not sure if there's higher standards for the chemicals in the white hose or if it's just a standard that means use only for drinking water.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:07 PM on July 9, 2007


I've gotten a pretty bad little-green-thingy infection in the bottom of my Brita (the part that only contains filtered tap water). But I've never seen anything like that in a sealed container of tap water. I thought all tap water in the US is chlorinated to prevent that sort of situation.

The Brita filter removes the chlorine.
posted by IvyMike at 9:18 PM on July 9, 2007


Nitpick: carboy != carbine
posted by eritain at 9:30 PM on July 9, 2007


ssg writes "Those bottles are certainly intended to be re-used. Why should you worry about the bottle being refilled with tap water, any more than you should be worried about the water pipes being refilled with tap water (water pipes aren't sanitized after use, of course). "

Water pipes generally only transport chlorinated water. Plus extensive steps are taken to reduce the possibility of cross contamination (vacuum breaks, vents, even the design of taps and basins).

Chuckles writes "How many hoses do you know of with lead in them?"

If you're drinking out of standard vinyl hose there is a good chance.
posted by Mitheral at 10:34 PM on July 9, 2007


Your urine is probably a safer source of hydration

Come now, docpops, don't be disingenuous. You know perfectly well that the ammonia in most healthy human urine will induce emesis. Furthermore, healthy urine is nominally sterile.

Bacteria, for one thing, can do photosynthesis.

I'm not aware of any human pathogen that can do photosynthesis. By the time you've got enough algae growing that pathogenic bacteria are feasting on dead algae, you've got a visible problem - scum on the sides of the bottle and a foul taste - not an invisible, hard-to-detect menace to health.

I'm usually the voice of doom in these threads, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this water's probably safe to drink. I probably wouldn't drink it myself, but I'm fully ready to acknowledge that this is based on superstition.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:05 AM on July 10, 2007


Also, for everyone who's worried because the bottles are never washed out: why did not a single one of you mention the water cooler itself?

Why, in your view, does the bottle need to be washed out and sterilized once per bottle-ful of water, but it's okay to then take the fresh new bottle and dump it upside down on a water cooler that hasn't been sterilized for the last 500 bottles of water it's delivered?
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:10 AM on July 10, 2007


Gee, hasn't anyone ever gone camping? I have plastic bottles that I have been backpacking with for 20 years. I have 7 gallon plastic jugs that I carry on river trips for three weeks at a time. All I ever do is give them a little rinse before refilling with tap water. No one has ever gotten sick.

The more likely threat is contaminated hands by whoever grabs that bottle by the neck and sticks it in the cooler. In that case it doesn't matter whether the water in the bottle is sterilized or tap water. The contamination comes from the handling.
posted by JackFlash at 12:46 AM on July 10, 2007


Why, in your view, does the bottle need to be washed out and sterilized once per bottle-ful of water, but it's okay to then take the fresh new bottle and dump it upside down on a water cooler that hasn't been sterilized for the last 500 bottles of water it's delivered?

I actually stopped using any office water coolers, not when an email went around my company advising all of us that the place at which the water bottle met the base had developed bright green algae through which all water taken from the cooler was passing and so the base was being taken in for cleaning, and could we make sure that we wiped that down whenever we changed the bottles?, because, you know, shit happens, but after the second email went out a month later saying the cooler was going back in for cleaning because no one had bothered to pay attention after the first email.
posted by occhiblu at 10:17 AM on July 10, 2007


The Brita filter removes the chlorine.

Yeah, that was my point. The little thingies grew in the bottom of the Brita, but I've never seen those types of thingies in straight-from-the-tap water (like, if I filled up a glass or bottle with it and left it for a while).
posted by rxrfrx at 12:17 PM on July 10, 2007


I'm in England and the tap water isn't chlorinated, if that makes a difference.

Sorry, cilantro, this is simply wrong. It may not smell as strong as in some places, but you may be sure the water is clorinated in one fashion or another. Otherwise, I would not have had to spend so much on Brita filters while living there.

I would suspect what your company is doing is in violation of the contract with your former water supplier. It may also be in violation of certain health and safety regulations. Everyone else has covered all the other points.
posted by Goofyy at 7:38 AM on July 18, 2007


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