EPA detects problems in airline drinking water

Supply in 20 planes tested positive for contaminants

September 21, 2004|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The drinking water on more than one of every eight passenger airliners tested by the Environmental Protection Agency flunked the agency's standards for bacteria, the government said yesterday.

EPA officials said they had no evidence that passengers had gotten sick from the water. But the agency said in a statement: "Passengers with compromised immune systems or others concerned (about the safety of the water) may want to request canned or bottled beverages."

Representatives of the leading airline industry trade group said they were confident that airline water was safe. "There are no reported cases of illnesses due to aircraft drinking water," said Nancy Young, a director of environmental programs at the Air Transport Association.

However, environmentalists said people could be getting sick from airplane drinking water without realizing the cause.

"That's absurd to say nobody has gotten sick," Erik Olson, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "How do they know?"

The EPA tested the water recently in 158 randomly selected airplanes at seven airports across the United States. Some of the planes had flown foreign routes.

The water in 20 of the planes tested positive for total coliform bacteria, a contaminant that indicates disease-causing organisms may be present. The water in two of those aircraft also tested positive for E. coli., a bacterium that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea and, in extreme cases, can lead to death.

The EPA investigation followed one by The Wall Street Journal two years ago that came up with even more eye-popping results. The Journal reported on Nov. 1, 2002, that it checked the water on 14 domestic and international flights and found bacteria levels on almost all the flights that measured tens to hundreds of times above government standards.

The contaminants included not only salmonella and staphylococcus but also insect eggs and a bacterium primarily carried by rodents.

Most airplanes have one water supply that is used for lavatories and the galley. The water is used for coffee and tea, and sometimes, drinking water. Airlines refill their water tanks at domestic as well as foreign airports.

The EPA said more tests were needed to know the extent of the risk.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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