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ORF Home > Planning & Space Management > NIH Drinking Water Program Changes

NIH Drinking Water Program Changes

Beginning in February 2012, the Office of Research Facilities (ORF) will begin removing bottled water dispensers from select locations on the Bethesda campus. The affected dispensers are located adjacent to water fountains that were previously out of service, but have since been repaired or replaced. The bottled water dispensers will remain in buildings or locations where the water supply has been determined to be unhealthy or not available. This action was approved by the NIH Facilities Working Group (FWG).

If you have questions or concerns, please contact your ORF facility manager. A listing of facility managers for each building is located at: If you are unable to determine your facility manager, please call the ORF Maintenance Operations 24-Hour Center at 301-435-8000. 


The NIH does not perform treatment of domestic “potable” (i.e., drinking) water. Treatment and testing are performed by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).  This testing is actually much more stringent than bottled water testing.   Water is delivered using the same major water mains that deliver water to homes and restaurants in the Bethesda area.  ORF is responsible for the installation, maintenance and operation of exterior water mains and building plumbing systems downstream from the (WSSC) water mains.  ORF follows federal, state, and local building codes and guidelines that govern providing potable water in buildings, and has been assigned the responsibility for service, maintenance, and testing of water fountains. ORF will continue to identify, replace, or repair water systems and fountains that are not operable.

Policy Determination

In April, 2011, ORF informed the FWG that, in certain health and safety circumstances, ORF had been providing bottled drinking water dispensers for employee usage. This is in accordance with a General Accounting Office (GAO) finding that made an exception to use appropriated funds in the situation where a building’s water supply is unhealthy or not available.  The water dispensers had been provided in circumstances where sources of potable water were not available.  

The FWG determined that if a safe water supply is not available in a particular building or location, then the ORF should continue to provide a potable water source to those affected buildings or locations. In addition, the FWG suggested that ORF replace and repair drinking fountains in a phased process to reduce reliance on bottled water in other locations, given that 1) the cost of bottled water is approximately 70 times that of municipal water; 2) the bottled water dispensers require employees to lift the heavy bottles to replenish the dispenser; 3) the bottled water dispensers often interfere with corridor egress.   The FWG directed that where drinking fountains could be repaired or replaced, water dispensers were to be removed. Note:  It is still permissible for employees to use personal funds, both individually and in groups like a coffee club, to pay for dispenser rental and water bottle delivery.


The ORF began a phased effort to repair and replace drinking fountains in June, 2011.  Where water fountains or drinking water systems have been repaired or replaced due to past contamination, the water dispensers at these locations will be removed beginning in February, 2012.  

Section 3-15: Potable Water Policy 
 The purpose of this section is to define Office of Research Facilities’ (ORF’s) policy on availability of potable water.  - PDF

Recycling Survey for All NIH Locations 

In accordance with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan ( , the National Institutes of Health is focused on reducing emissions, conserving resources, protecting and promoting human and environmental health, maximizing return on investment, and leading and engaging the community. 

One of the primary goals is to divert at least 50 percent of non-hazardous solid waste from landfills and incinerators by increasing our reuse, recycling, and composting by 2015. Your input will help the NIH improve its current program as well as shape future efforts to reach this goal. The Office of Research Facilities (ORF) would appreciate your feedback on current and proposed recycling efforts at all NIH locations.

ORF is interested in ensuring that our recycling program achieves its full potential and would welcome your feedback. Please take a moment to provide feedback on your recycling efforts and to give your opinion of NIH recycling services at your location by participating in the following survey:

The survey should only take approximately 10 minutes. The survey results and any resulting changes in NIH’s recycling program will be provided on the NIH Environmental Management System (NEMS) website at: If you encounter any problems with the survey, please contact Dr. Katherine Meza at

Thank you for your participation.


NIH Drinking Water Program - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Does NIH treat water after it is delivered from WSSC?

A: No. 

Q: Is it appropriate for ICs to use appropriated funds to pay for water dispensers for personal use?
A: No, bottled water can only be procured with appropriated funds when the building water is not potable.  In cases in which the building water is not potable, ORF should be providing water in this case, not the ICs.  

Q: Is it acceptable for NIH employees to form a club to collect and use personal funds to pay for dispenser rental and water bottle delivery?
A: Yes.  

Q: Will NIH or ORF know the difference between the employee-funded and ORF-funded dispensers and water bottles?
A: Yes. From contract documents and vendor participation, locations and dispensers can be differentiated. 

Q: Is there an ORF or NIH policy governing the placement and number of water fountains?
A: The ORF policy follows all pertinent building codes and regulations. 

Q: What is about to take place?
A: In February 2012, ORF will begin removing ORF-funded bottled water dispensers and water bottles from locations where water systems and fountains have been tested to demonstrate no health hazards from lead and found to be in working, sanitary condition or where the fountains have been repaired or replaced. 

Q: Who serves as the contact for occupant complaints and water fountain testing requests?
A: If you have questions or concerns, please contact your ORF facility manager. A listing of facility managers for each building is located at: Facility Management.  If you are unable to determine your facility manager, please call the ORF Maintenance Operations 24-Hour Center at 301-4350-8000.   

Q: Is there an Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulation on potable water?
A: Yes. The Code of Federal Regulations  [29 CFR 1910.141 (b)(1)(i)] states, “Potable water shall be provided in all places of employment, for drinking, washing of the person, cooking, washing of foods, washing of cooking or eating utensils, washing of food preparation or processing premises, and personal service rooms.” 

Q: Does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allow trace concentrations of contaminants in the treated water supply?
A: Yes. The EPA has threshold limitations known as the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL). MCLs ensure that drinking water does not pose either a short-term or long-term health risk. The EPA sets MCLs at level that are economically and technologically feasible. Some states set MCLs which more strict than that of the EPA. For the most recent report on WSSC water quality, including amounts of these substances, see: External Site

Q:  In cases in which the building water supply is not safe, how many bottled water dispensers will be made available?    
A: The ORF will ensure that bottled water dispensers are placed in accordance with the Potable Water Policy. Where multiple bottled water dispensers are located on the same floor, the number of dispensers will be limited to one (1) per 75 occupants.  

Q:  What will be the impact in Patient Care areas?
A:  Bottled water dispensers will remain in patient care areas. 

Q:  What about water filters?
A:  Several NIH Institutes/Centers have installed additional filters on their water faucets to improve the aesthetics of the water.   Although this practice presents benefits, it is not recommended by the Office of Research Services, Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS) because if the filters are not changed frequently, they can collect bacteria.


[1] It is acceptable for employees to use personal funds, both individually and in groups like a coffee club, to pay for dispenser rental and water bottle delivery.

This page was last updated on Oct 31, 2017