Airliner water still has problems, EPA says


Jan 25, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said last week that some passengers on US airliners may want to consider drinking only canned or bottled beverages, after the latest round of water tests again showed signs of potential contamination on some planes.

About 17% of airliners tested last November and December—29 of 169 planes—had total coliform bacteria in their drinking water, but no Escherichia coli was found, the EPA announced last week. A finding of total coliform bacteria in water indicates that pathogenic bacteria could be present, while E coli is a sign of recent contamination with human or animal waste, according to the EPA.

The latest tests show an increase from the previous round of tests last August and September, when about 13% of planes (20 of 158) had coliform bacteria in their water. But in that round, two planes tested positive for E coli.

The new results "confirm the presence of bacteria at levels warranting continued EPA scrutiny," the agency said. "Passengers with compromised immune systems or others concerned may want to request canned or bottled beverages and refrain from drinking tea or coffee unless made with bottled water."

The EPA tested water from both galleys and lavatory sinks. Coliform bacteria were found in water from lavatory sinks on 21 planes, from galley sinks on 4 planes, and from both galleys and lavatories on 4 planes.

In response to the findings, the Air Transport Association (ATA), which includes 14 major airlines, said aircraft drinking water comes directly from municipal water supplies.

"We believe the most significant finding by the EPA is that there were no positive test results for any harmful bacteria," Nancy Young, the ATA's managing director of environmental programs, said in a news release.

She added that aircraft lavatories are "essentially public restrooms, where there's a high potential for cross-contamination of [water] samples." The ATA also said federal agencies have never reported any illness cases caused by airline drinking water.

Most US airlines serve bottled water and other bottled beverages, the ATA said. In addition, the airlines buy ice from caterers that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last November the EPA announced an interim agreement with the ATA on drinking-water safety steps and promised to conduct further water tests. The airlines agreed to test the drinking-water systems on all aircraft over the ensuing year, disinfect drinking-water systems quarterly, and immediately disinfect any system that fails to meet standards.

Airlines covered by the agreement are Alaska, Aloha, American, America West, ATA, Continental, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Midwest, Northwest, United, and US Airways. Delta and Southwest are negotiating separate agreements with the EPA, the agency said.

See also:

Jan 19 EPA news release

Nov 11, 2004, CIDRAP News Story, "EPA, airlines announce pact on drinking-water safety"

EPA information on E coli O157:H7 in drinking water

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