Soda Fountains Squirt Fecal Bacteria, Study Finds

However, Godard pointed out that the most common model of soda fountains in her study -- manufactured by Cornelius Inc. -- recommended flushing out the internal tubes at least once a month and daily cleaning of nozzles.

"But my guess is that most restaurant owners wouldn't have the vaguest idea about how to flush those machines, or that they would even need too," said Godard.

Microbiologists not involved in the study weren't surprised of coliform colonies in the soda fountain machines.

"Wherever man is there will be representation of feces," said Philip Tierno, director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center.

"We're basically bathed in feces as a society," he said.

How To Prevent Bacteria in Soda Fountain Machines

Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona was "not too surprised" to learn coliform bacteria were found in soda fountain machines either.

"We've seen it with drinking water dispensing machines where customers fill up jugs of water," said Gerba. "You see it anytime you have something where people can touch the dispenser."

As gross as the contamination sounds, experts weren't too worried about becoming infected from the bacteria found in the study unless a person is immunocompromised through cancer treatment, medications following an organ transplant or if they have AIDS.

After all, there haven't been any outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease reported in Roanoke Valley or across the nation recently.

But microbiologists did see the soda machines as potential hosts for more threatening bacteria and viruses.

Who Should Care About It?

Godard thought it was possible that a more virulent strain of E. coli could grow in the machines since her group found a less dangerous form.

"There are strains of E. coli that aren't dangerous," she explained.

Gerba and Tierno were also concerned about the possibility of a serious Norovirus outbreak. They reason if fecal contamination can spread to soda fountain dispensers, then viruses spread by fecal contamination could, too.

"That's what I would worry about because you get one of these tips contaminated and you contaminate a lot of soda," said Gerba. "It suggests it's a route for transmitting something like Norovirus because fecal contamination is occurring."

One such incident occurred in 2000 on a military base hospitalizing 99 soldiers with gastrointestinal illness, according to Godard's paper.

Tierno thought restaurants could avoid potential Norovirus outbreaks by taking measures similar to cruise ships, which have implemented strict rules in cafeterias since a string of Norovirus outbreaks in the last decade.

"Bottom line -- there should be better cleaning of the instruments, and probably the public should not have access to dispensing their own sodas," said Tierno.

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