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EPA: 13 Percent of Airliner Water Unsafe

Sep 21, 2004 | AP

Nearly one of every eight passenger airliners tested by the Environmental Protection Agency carried drinking water that fails agency standards because it contains coliform bacteria, the agency said Monday.

EPA enforcement chief Tom Skinner said passengers whose immune systems are compromised may want to avoid drinking water from airplane galleys or lavatories, although he noted that test results were preliminary.

Of the planes checked, 20 tested positive for total coliform bacteria, which could signal the presence of other harmful bacteria. Two planes tested positive for E. coli bacteria which in a severe form can cause gastrointestinal illness.

"This is something that needs further analysis, but also immediate action," Skinner said, adding that the EPA will begin further testing in a few weeks.

Air Transport Association spokesman Doug Wills said the airlines are confident their drinking water is safe, saying, "No one has gotten sick from airline drinking water." His group represents major airlines.

In the United States, 90 percent of municipal drinking water systems meet EPA standards. The agency's testing showed airline water was only slightly worse: 87.4 percent of the planes tested had water that met EPA standards.

The EPA randomly tested the water in August and September on 158 aircraft, including small commuter planes and jumbo jets for domestic and international flagged carriers.

Skinner said the agency will do more sampling to determine if the bacteria comes from the original water supply, the tanker trucks that load water onto planes or the airplanes themselves.

Air Travelers Association President David Stempler said airline water can stagnate in an airplane's tank, and that it can pick up bacteria, particulates and rust.

"They really need to make sure that the water on the airplane is drinkable," Stempler said. "We recommend to our members that they use bottled water for drinking purposes."

The EPA conceded more testing is needed to figure out why its results differ markedly from similar tests conducted by the Air Transport Association and the Food and Drug Administration neither of which found any cause for concern, according to the ATA.

Nancy Young, an ATA lawyer, suggested the EPA's samples may have been contaminated because they were taken mostly from the aircrafts' lavatories. Also, one-third of the contaminated samples came from foreign carriers, Young said in a statement. Such plans may have brought water from countries with lower standards than those in the United States.

Until more testing is done, the EPA is working with airlines to develop new guidelines on testing frequency and sampling size, what to do when test results are positive and how often to disinfect and flush their tanks, Skinner said.

"We are working toward an acceptable agreement with airlines, and if we can't achieve that in very short order we'll take enforcement action," Skinner said.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said most people don't worry about the water on board airplanes.

"A lot of people take for granted it is safe," said Mitchell, whose group represents business travelers. "The last thing they worry about is the water."


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