Bacteria Still Onboard Airline Drinking Water

Nearly 1 in 5 Aircraft Fail Latest Round of EPA Drinking Water Testing

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 19, 2005 -- Danger: bacteria onboard!

Although most drinking water onboard airplanesdrinking water onboard airplanes may be safe to drink, the results of a second round of EPA testing show that drinking water quality onboard commercial airlines is getting worse rather than better.

Tests conducted in November and December 2004 show that 17.2% of randomly selected passenger aircraft carried water that was contaminated with total coliform bacteria. That's an increase since the first round of airline drinking water tests in August and September, which showed that 12.7% of aircraft had contaminated water.

The water tested included water taken from galley taps and lavatory faucets.

Coliform bacteria are found naturally in soil, lakes, and rivers and in the digestive tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals. The EPA says the presence of coliform bacteria doesn't necessarily pose a health risk because the bacteria themselves will not likely cause illness.

However, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water indicates that other disease-causing organisms may also be present in the water system.

Based on these results, EPA officials say people with compromised immune systems may want to request canned or bottled beverages and refrain from drinking tea or coffee unless made with bottled water. Though boiling water for one minute will remove bacteria from drinking water, the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane is not generally brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that bacteria are killed.

Airline Drinking Water Quality Worsening

The EPA is reviewing existing regulations and guidance on airline drinking water quality, and the agency began randomly testing airline water supplies last year.

In the first round of testing in August and September, researchers found 20 of the 158 (12.7%) aircraft tested positive for total coliform bacteria, including two that tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

E. coli bacteria is a type of fecal coliform bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals. The presence of E. coli or fecal coliform in drinking water may indicate human or animal fecal contamination, which could cause illness.

After those initial test results were released last September, the EPA announced that further testing would take place and began efforts to reach agreements with major commercial airlines to more closely monitor water quality on airlines.

Agreements were reached with 12 of the major carriers in November, and two additional airlines, Delta and Southwest Airlines, are negotiating separate agreements with the EPA.

In the second round of tests performed in November and December, researchers found 29 of the 169 (17.2%) randomly selected aircraft carried water contaminated with total coliform bacteria. E. coli was not found in any of the aircraft tested during the second round.

If test results revealed contamination with coliform bacteria on a domestic plane, that aircraft was disinfected and retested to ensure that the disinfection was effective. If the bacteria were found on a foreign aircraft, the EPA notified the airline company of the positive test results and advised them to disinfect and retest the aircraft.

Of the 40 foreign-based carriers sampled during this round, 17.5% (seven aircraft) were tested positive for total coliform.

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SOURCES: EPA. WebMD Medical News: "EPA: Unsafe Water Aboard 1 in 8 Airplanes."
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