Tests of Drinking Water on Aircraft Again Find Contamination

WASHINGTON, DC, January 19, 2005 (ENS) - Passengers traveling by air might want to bring their own bottled water on board in view of the results of a second round of random tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the water on both U.S. and foreign planes.

Test results released today show that 17.2 percent of 169 randomly selected passenger aircraft carried water contaminated with total coliform bacteria. Adding together the results of the first and second rounds of testing, the EPA tested 327 aircraft in 2004, with approximately 15 percent found to be total coliform positive.

The percentage of planes with contaminated water was even higher than the results from the EPA's first found of tests last fall, which found 12.7 percent of aircraft carried contaminated water for use in galleys and lavatory sinks.

But the Air Tranport Association, a trade group that represents the airlines, took issue with the EPA's test results on the first round. Nancy Young, managing director of environmental programs and assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association, said, "We believe that EPA overstated its results."


America West is one of the companies that has signed a consent order with the EPA to test and report on its drinking water. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto.com)
The latest tests of aircraft tank water - used in the galleys and lavatory sinks - were performed on domestic and international passenger aircraft at airports nationwide in November and December of last year. The results confirm the presence of bacteria at levels warranting continued scrutiny, the agency said in a statement.

"The information released today is intended to help the public make informed decisions while traveling on aircraft," the EPA 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."

Total coliform and E. coli are indicators that other disease-causing organisms may be present in the water and could potentially affect public health, the agency said.

When sampling identified total coliform in the water of a domestic aircraft, that aircraft was disinfected and retested to ensure that the disinfection was effective.

In instances where foreign flag aircraft tested positive for total coliform, those airline companies were notified of the positive test results and advised to disinfect and retest the aircraft.

The EPA conducted a first round of sampling during August and September 2004 during which the agency randomly tested the water supplies on 158 aircraft nationwide.

Initial testing of onboard water supplies revealed 20 aircraft - 12.7 percent - with positive results for total coliform bacteria, with two of these aircraft also testing positive for E. coli.

Following those tests, EPA announced that further testing would take place, and efforts were undertaken to reach agreements with airlines to more closely monitor water quality on planes.

In EPA's second round of water quality sampling, 169 aircraft were tested. The sampling included water from galley water taps as well as lavatory faucets.

Testing found that 29 of these aircraft - 17.2 percent - were total-coliform-positive. E. coli was not found in the 169 aircraft included in the second round.

Young on behalf of the Air Transport Association, said the EPA did not wait for the results of a required second round of tests before coming out with the results of the first sampling done in August and September. The real number is five percent (8/158), not 12 percent," she said.

"Under the EPA's own regulations," said Young, "you must have two positive samples from the same source to have a violation. Only eight of the 20 positive samples from 158 aircraft were retested as positive. And more than one-third of the 20 initial positives came from foreign-flag carriers, which the EPA does not regulate."

Following the first round of airline water testing in November 2004, EPA announced that agreements had been signed with the following airlines to increase monitoring of water quality testing and disinfecting processes: Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, America West, ATA Airlines, Continental Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.


Southwest plane heads for a higher cruising altitude. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Two additional airlines, Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines, are currently negotiating separate agreements with EPA.

The terms of the agreements announced in November are being placed into administrative orders on consent with each of the airlines. This is an enforceable mechanism to obtain comprehensive monitoring data from every aircraft in each airline's fleet.

Airlines will be obligated to provide total coliform and disinfectant residual samples from at least one galley and lavatory on every aircraft in a 12 month time period, said the EPA.

Young says that airline drinking water remains as safe as municipal drinking water supplies in the United States, and the federal Centers for Disease Control reports there have been no cases of illnesses linked to airline drinking water.

"The agreement specifies that each carrier will continue to routinely disinfect its aircraft drinking water system and its water carts, as has been done under EPA guidance for many years," Young said. "The disinfection process is designed to prevent potentially harmful bacteria from accumulating in the system."

"To confirm the effectiveness of this," she said, "the agreement includes a massive data-collection effort, with our carriers sampling each of their aircraft over the course of the next year and reporting their sampling results to EPA on a quarterly basis."

Should any of the airlines’ samples test positive, the airlines have agreed to immediately disinfect the aircraft drinking water system or to stop making drinking water available, until disinfection can be undertaken, Young said, even though usual EPA protocols would call for a repeat sample to confirm positive test results before such action.

Collectively, the 14 carriers that have signed consent orders represent the majority of U.S. flag carrying aircraft transporting the flying public. The agency will continue to work with smaller, regional and charter aircraft carriers to address drinking water quality with agreements similar to those reached with Air Transport Association (ATA) members.

These agreements will govern airline drinking water safety until additional regulations are completed.

The EPA began a review of existing safe drinking water guidance to airlines in 2002. In response to the aircraft test results, EPA is conducting a priority review of existing regulations and guidance. The agency is placing specific emphasis on preventive measures, adequate monitoring and sound maintenance practices such as flushing and disinfection of aircraft water systems.

For more information on the regulation of water supplies aboard passenger aircraft and to view publicly available testing data, visit: http://www.epa.gov/airlinewater/.