KCTV5 Investigates visited a dozen different fast food restaurants, convenience stores and a café on both sides of the state line to find out what might be on the self-serve machines that dispense drinks.
A study published in 2010 by the International Journal of Food Microbiology discovered soda machines harboring micro organisms like e-Coli and staph. Bacteria, including coliform, were found in nearly half the samples, sometimes in high levels.
Researchers say those substances can cause gastric distress in most people and bigger problems for those with weakened immune systems.
If someone is wondering what might be found on soda machines closer to home, KCTV5 filed an open records request for the Kansas City, MO, Health Department inspection reports of bars, restaurants and convenience stores.
The documents revealed city food inspectors have cited area businesses for extra growths appearing on their soda fountains.
"It's a critical violation, mold build up on a food contact surface," Environmental Public Health program manager, Naser Jouhari, said.
Jouhari pointed out his health inspectors can only issue violations for problems they can see with the naked eye.
To find out exactly what those inspectors might not be detecting, KCTV5 sent an undercover producer, armed with sterile swabs, to wipe down the nozzles of a dozen different machines.
The swabs were put into a styrofoam cooler, packed and shipped overnight to the EMSL analytical lab in St. Louis for testing.
EMSL microbiologist Nikki Palen gathered samples from each of the 12 sponges and dropped them onto plates, which were loaded into the incubator.
Within 48 hours, evidence of contamination began to show.
Signs of yeast and mold appeared on 75 percent of the plates with telltale growths of black and green.
KCTV5 investigative reporter Eric Chaloux met with Palen at the EMSL analytical lab to go over the results.
"Anything surprise you? That some of these were growing on soda fountains?" Chaloux asked.
"A little bit surprised at some of them," Palen replied.
The lab also detected high levels of bacteria on a quarter of the soda machines swabbed by KCTV5.
One sample in particular, from a Lenexa convenience store at West 86th Street parkway and Quivera Road, produced some special scrutiny.
"Is this one ... safe to touch, without the gloves?" Chaloux asked.
"I wouldn't," Palen said. "This definitely can cause food poisoning and things of that nature."
"It originates from?" Chaloux asked.
"Typically a source of fecal contamination," Palen said. "That means somebody brought it from human feces somewhere,"
"Eww." Chaloux reacted.
"Yeah, something you wouldn't want to eat," Palen said.
"It means bathroom usually ... didn't wash their hands," said Rebecca Horvat, a microbiologist at the University of Kansas Medical Cancer center upon reviewing KCTV5's lab results.
"No matter how healthy you are, certain strains out there can knock you down?" Chaloux asked.
"Yes, that is right," Horvat said. "There are certain strains that are pathogenic so speak. Those are bad."
As for microorganisms making people sick, Horvat says problems are usually caused by the kinds of bacteria rather than the amount.
"It's common to have bacteria everywhere," Horvat said. But not in certain things. You don't want them in your food."
KCTV5's test results did not specify the type of coliform that was discovered on the soda machine at that Lenexa store.
A spokeswoman associated with that location says it has taken steps to investigate and address the issue.
In the meantime, to determine whether or not a soda fountain is safe for to use, food inspectors suggest people get in the habit of looking up at each dispenser. Any discoloration of the inner, white nozzle could indicate mold and a reason to move on.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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