A study underway aims to determine how safe those oft-overlooked drinking fountains are.
Over the past several weeks, two St. Petersburg College researchers have been testing for bacteria on 10 of the drinking fountains along the 38-mile recreational path. They're testing the water that comes out of immediately after someone activates the fountains and after 10 seconds of flow. They're also testing the surface of the fountains themselves.
Their aim is to find out whether there's potentially harmful bacterial contamination at each of them and notify cities or the county if there is.
"This is a public fountain that anyone can use," said Courtney Cain, who is part of the team. "Maybe there's a crack in their pipes that they don't know about, and it's contaminating the water that's at that source."
At the moment, water fountains aren't high priority for the county, which maintains the entire trail.
"We hadn't installed a water fountain [along the trail] in probably 10 years," said Pinellas County Parks and Recreation Operations Manager Lyle Fowler.
The county has installed fewer than a dozen fountains along the trail and generally maintains them on an as-needed basis. That means the fountains typically don't get regular scrub-downs.
"The users of the trail are not unaccustomed to planning for themselves, providing for themselves," Fowler said. "They've got their water, they've got their sports drinks. Our observation is that most folks tend to provide for themselves, and that would be our preference."
Sites the researchers are reviewing include a fountain at the KOA Campground in the Bay Pines area, John Taylor and Walsingham Parks in Largo and outside the old train station in Dunedin. The water sources of each vary by location. Some link into the nearest municipal water supply, while others use county water.
While county officials say the drinking fountains don't get a lot of use, Cain and partner Jessica Small, a marine biology major at St. Petersburg College, say they have seen plenty of people using the fountains along the Pinellas Trail, especially as the weather heats up and in more crowded areas, such as downtown Dunedin.
"Even if someone has a reusable water bottle, the trail is 40 miles long," Cain said. "At some point they're going to run out of water, and they'll will it up with tap water from one of the sources."
Heightening the researchers' concerns are some of the ways they see the fountain being used. Some walkers let their dogs drink out of them. The occasional user will put his mouth directly on the spout or use the drinking fountain as a wash basin.
"I went up to this fountain the other day, and there was this guy who was soaked in sweat," Small said. "He took off his shirt and was pretty much bathing in [the water fountain]."
Small and Cain are sampling each of the 10 water fountains a total of three times. They hope to complete their analysis this week.
Although the team is seeing growth in the cultures they're monitoring, they're not entirely sure which types of bacteria are represented yet or how high the levels of bacteria are.
So far, though, what they're seeing is more dramatic than they expected.
"We didn't expect the results that we are seeing right now," said Cain. "It makes me want to tell people to please don't drink out of the fountains right now."
A drinking fountain at Walsingham Park showed a consistent bacterial presence, including signs of coliform, a type of bacteria associated with feces, she said.
The researchers, though, caution against being too afraid of germs.
"We don't want to scare people, and we're not finding high bacterial counts at every single water fountain," said Shannon McQuaig, the assistant professor of natural science that's advising Cain and Small. "And there's actually estimates that there are more bacterial cells on our bodies and in our bodies than the cells that make up our bodies."
One thing generally consistent in their findings is that they see substantially less bacteria on water samples collected after they let it flow for 10 seconds.