Is Restaurant Water Safe to Drink? 4 Things to Know About Germs

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

When you go to a restaurant, every meal is accompanied by a glass of water. And while most places in the United States offer safe tap water, that does not mean what you are consuming is bacteria-free or safe. In fact, a simple glass of water can harbor more germs than a toilet seat. Gross!

Here are four factors to be wary about with a glass of water:

1. The ice

Most people prefer ice water but that could be a dirty (pun intended) habit. Consider this: Last year, the Daily Mail ran its own survey to find that most restaurant ice machines had higher levels of bacteria than water samples taken from toilet bowls at the same location.

A few years back, NBC ran a Dateline report on the perils of not handling ice safely. Dateline observed that many restaurant employees used their bare hands to retrieve ice — an act that is frowned upon in terms of food safety and a health code violation. And if you think a self-serve soda machine is a safe source for ice, think again! Employees typically have to manually refill the machines with ice, which means their hands (translation: their germs) will be all over the ice you consume.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

2. The lemon

Recall that complimentary lemon that establishments place in your water? That may be a breeding ground of germs. According to a study earlier this year, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, 70 percent of the lemon wedges tested positive for microbial growth.

“Although lemons have known antimicrobial properties, the results of our study indicate that a wide variety of microorganisms may survive on the flesh and the rind of a sliced lemon,” the authors wrote in their report. “Restaurant patrons should be aware that lemon slices added to beverages may include potentially pathogenic microbes.”

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

3. The glass

Two years ago, ABC News Consumer Correspondent Elisabeth Leamy went undercover at ten restaurants in three U.S. states to find out which parts of a restaurants had the most germs. One of the ten most germ-infested parts of a restaurant are the glasses, as staff touch the rims while getting them. While the proper way of retrieving a glass is to hold it by its base (or body), there’s no way to guarantee your staff is actually doing that.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/

4. The water: Most tap water sources are clean, but if you have any doubts, then cross reference your geographic location with local drinking water information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After all, despite having one of the safest water supplies in the world, chemical spills and other disasters can leave water sources contaminated.

While these four facts may make you want to avoid liquids at a given restaurant, know that there are ways to limit exposure. First and foremost, opt against a lemon wedge and ice. What’s more, ask for a straw to limit exposure to the rim of the glass. As far as the water is concerned — if you’re in an area with clean tap water then you’re safe with your supply.
And if you’re considering opting for soda instead of water to be safe, be warned that soda fountains are a bacteria breeding ground as well. A small study found that half the machines tested had a coliform bacteria, which is banned in drinking water by the EPA since it implies there could be fecal contamination.

“The EPA regulates our drinking supply, and there can be some bacteria, but one of the things that is not allowed is coliform bacteria,” said Renee D. Godard, professor of biology at Hollins University and a co-author of the paper to ABC News. “We can’t have that in our drinking supply. But they’re coming out of these soda fountain machines.”

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