EPA: Unsafe Water Aboard 1 in 8 Airplanes

Most Airline Water Safe to Drink, but Nearly 13% Don't Meet EPA Standards

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Sept. 21, 2004 -- One in eight airplanes may carry drinking water that does not meet U.S. safety standards, according to a new EPA report.

The report found that most of the aircraft tested met EPA drinking water quality standards, but 12.6% of domestic and international passenger airplanes tested at U.S. airports carried water that failed to meet these standards.

Researchers randomly tested aircraft tank water, which is used in the galleys and lavatory sinks, in 158 airplanes arriving at U.S. airports during August and September 2004.

The tests showed that the water supply on board 20 airplanes showed evidence of coliform (intestinal) bacteria and two airplanes tested positive for E. coli. Both of these are indicators that other disease-causing organisms may be present in the water and could affect public health.

According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents most major airlines, about 90% of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally. EPA officials say these airplanes may get water from foreign sources that are not subject to EPA drinking standards.

In a statement released in response to the EPA report, the ATA raised questions about the validity of the study and says the findings are inconsistent with previous studies conducted by the FDA and others, which have demonstrated the safety of drinking water on commercial aircraft.

"EPA's findings are based on a small sample (approximately 1% of the worldwide fleet) that does not allow any statistical conclusions about aircraft drinking water," say ATA officials in the news release. "There also are questions about how the EPA collected water samples, specifically what measures were taken to safeguard against cross-contamination."

The association says water samples taken from lavatory sinks may have been contaminated and a follow-up study is needed.

The ATA says airline drinking water on U.S. flights comes from municipal drinking water supplies and therefore is as safe as the tap water most people get from their homes. In addition, most airlines also provide passengers the choice of bottled water for drinking.

"Fortunately, no one has gotten sick from airline drinking water," say ATA officials. "While we are confident that airline drinking water is safe, we take the EPA's findings seriously and are working collaboratively with the agency to resolve any questions about the quality of airline drinking water."

In light of the study's findings, EPA officials recommend that people with impaired immune systems or others concerned about water quality should request bottled or canned beverages when onboard aircraft and refrain from drinking tea or coffee that does not used bottled water.

Boiling water for one minute will remove bacteria and other pathogens from water, but the EPA says the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane may not be brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that these organisms are killed.

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SOURCES: News release, EPA. News release, Air Transport Association.
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