Girl’s Science Project May Make You Rethink That Drink Order

Those ice-cold drinks from favorite fast food restaurants may not seem as refreshing after a seventh-grader’s science project reveals what may lurk inside the cup.  Benito Middle School student Jasmine Roberts examined the amount of bacteria in ice served at fast food restaurants.

Her project won the science fair at the New Tampa school, and she hopes to win a top prize at the Hillsborough County Regional Science and Engineering Fair, which starts Tuesday.  The 12-year-old compared the ice used in the drinks with the water from toilet bowls in the same restaurants. Jasmine said she found the results startling.  “I thought there might be a little bacteria in the ice, but I never expected it to be this much,” she said. “And I never thought the toilet water would be cleaner.”

Her discovery: Seventy percent of the time, the ice had more bacteria than the toilet water.

Geoff Luebkemann, director of the division for hotels and restaurants at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said people shouldn’t swear off fast food ice just yet. His state agency regulates Florida businesses, including coordinating health inspections.  “Ice machines are part of the health inspections,” Luebkemann said. “There are a lot of factors that have to be considered, like how accurately did she gather and test her specimens. Plus, comparing the ice to toilet water can be misleading because there are acceptable levels of bacteria for water.”

Jasmine said she has always been interested in water quality and its link to health issues. Last year, she compared hotel ice to toilet water. She decided to branch out to restaurants this year.  She is a previous county winner, and her brother won a top prize last year for his project.  For this project, Jasmine visited five fast food restaurants near the University of South Florida. She collected ice samples from self-service dispensers inside the restaurants, as well as ice from drinks served through drive-through windows. She also collected samples of toilet water from those restaurants.  She placed the samples into sterile containers and tested them at a lab at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, where she volunteers with a USF professor.   Jasmine found that in four of the five restaurants, the ice that came from the self-serve machines had more bacteria than the toilet water. Three of the five cups of ice from the drive-through windows had more bacteria than the toilet water.

Of the bacteria found in the ice, three out of the five restaurants tested positive for fecal coliform or E. coli, organisms that come from the feces of warm-blooded animals.

Health symptoms related to the presence of coliform include cramps and diarrhea. E. coli can cause intestinal illness and, in rare cases, hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious kidney condition.  Jasmine offers several theories for the contamination.  “The machine may not be cleaned properly, or it comes from someone touching the ice with their hands,” she said.

Galina Tuninskaya, vice president of Applied Consumer Services, a private lab that tests drinking water, said the standard for drinking water is usually 100 colony-forming units of bacteria per milliliter. The highest amount Jasmine found was 54 units in ice from a self-serve machine.  Tuninskaya said the acceptable level varies for each type of bacteria.

“No levels of fecal coliform or E. coli are acceptable,” she said. “If you find that, you’ve got a problem.”

Jasmine won’t reveal the locations she tested, for legal reasons, but she did present her findings to the restaurants and various government agencies.  “I think this is important because these bacteria can seriously affect people with weak immune systems,” she said.  She said the restaurant managers or owners she spoke with were surprised by the results because, they said, they clean the machines regularly.  Several managers said they plan to use the information to change procedures, Jasmine said. One manager even asked her to come back and test the temperature of the food.

As for Jasmine, she has changed her ordering habits. “After this, I definitely don’t get ice.” she said.


By MICHELE SAGER , The Tampa Tribune

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