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The EPA is charged with monitoring water quality on commercial airline flights.  Read this article to find out what they found during the most recent tests and why you might want to avoid "tap" water on airplanes.

 

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Travel Advice/Travel Tips -  The quality of drinking water on airplanes


Results from initial testing of drinking water onboard 158 randomly selected passenger airplanes shows that most of the aircraft tested (87.4%) met EPA drinking water quality standards. However, 12.6 percent of domestic and international passenger aircraft tested at U. S. airports carried water that did not meet EPA standards

As part of enforcement activities, EPA randomly tested the water supplies on domestic and international aircraft arriving at four U.S. airports during August and September 2004. Aircraft tank water is used in the galleys and lavatory sinks. Initial testing of onboard water supply revealed 20 aircraft (12.6 percent) with positive results for total coliform bacteria; two of these aircraft (1.3 percent) also tested positive for E.coli. Both total coliform and E.coli are indicators that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water and could potentially affect public health.

When sampling identified total coliform in the water, the aircraft involved was retested. In repeat testing on 11 aircraft, the Agency confirmed that water from 8 of these planes still did not meet EPA’s water quality standards.



A significant part of aircraft travel includes international flights. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), about 90 percent of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally. These aircraft may take on water from foreign sources that are not subject to EPA drinking water standards.

EPA is working actively with ATA, which represents a number of major airlines, as well as with non-ATA members, on agreements regarding steps the airlines will take to ensure acceptable drinking water quality. The Agency is also discussing how airlines would provide the necessary additional testing to determine the nature and extent of the problem. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement or agreements promptly, EPA will exercise its enforcement authorities to achieve these goals. EPA anticipates an agreement with U.S. airlines shortly.

EPA began a review of existing guidance in 2002. In response to the aircraft test results, EPA has accelerated its 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.

Important Questions

1. What are coliforms?

  • Coliforms are a group of closely related bacteria most of which are natural and common inhabitants of the soil and ambient waters (such as lakes and rivers) and in the digestive tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals.
  • The presence of total coliform, in and of itself, is not indicative of a health risk. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water indicates that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water system.  Top of page

2. What is E. coli?

  • E. coli is a subgroup of the fecal coliform group. It is found in great quantities in the intestines of people and warm-blooded animals. If total coliform is present in a drinking water sample, EPA requires that it also be tested for E. coli or fecal coliform.
  • Most E. coli are harmless. Some strains, however, may cause illness - diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. The presence of E. coli or fecal coliform in a drinking water sample may indicate human or animal fecal contamination - meaning that pathogens may be present.  Top of page

3. Is the water on planes unsafe?

  • EPA indicated that it did not have sufficient data to make broadly applicable, reliable conclusions about water quality on passenger aircraft.
  • The EPA spokesperson indicated that the Agency was committed to keeping the American public well informed of further testing and actions taken, reviewing existing guidance to determine areas where it might be strengthened, concluding agreements with the airlines and taking enforcement actions where warranted.

4. What actions should fliers take?

  • The traveling public may benefit from the information released today when deciding how they use the water that comes from aircraft tanks.
  • Passengers with suppressed immune systems or others concerned should request bottled or canned beverages while on the aircraft and refrain from drinking tea or coffee that does not use bottled water.
  • While boiling water for one minute will remove pathogens from drinking water, the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane may not be brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that pathogens are killed.

5. Where does the water on passenger airplanes come from?

  • In the United States, water loaded aboard aircraft comes from public water systems.
  • The water provided by public water systems is regulated by state and federal authorities. That water may be delivered to the aircraft holding tank via piping from the airport itself or a hose from a water tanker.

6. What about international flights?

  • A significant part of aircraft travel includes international flights. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), about 90 percent of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally.
    • These aircraft may board water from foreign sources which are not subject to EPA drinking water standards.

7. Who regulates water on passenger airplanes in the United States?

  • In the United States, drinking water safety on airlines is jointly regulated by the EPA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). EPA regulates the parent systems that supply water to the airports and the drinking water once it is on board the aircraft.
  • FDA has jurisdiction over culinary water (e.g., ice) and the points where aircraft obtain water (e.g., pipes or tankers) at the airport. FAA requires airline companies to submit operation and maintenance plans for all parts of the aircraft, including the potable water system.

8. What is the airlines’ role in ensuring safe water on aircraft?

  • The regulatory structure for all public water systems, including aircraft, relies upon self-monitoring and reporting of results to the primacy agency. The primacy agency for aircraft public water systems is EPA.

9. What is EPA doing about this problem?

  • EPA will update its information and advice to the traveling public as soon as new information is available.
  • EPA is working actively with ATA, which represents a number of major airlines, as well as with non-ATA members, to discuss agreements regarding steps the airlines will take to ensure acceptable drinking water quality.
  • The Agency is also discussing how airlines would provide the necessary additional testing to determine the nature and extent of the problem.
  •  If the parties are unable to reach an agreement or agreements promptly, EPA has indicated that it will exercise its enforcement authorities to achieve these goals. and it anticipates an agreement with U.S. airlines shortly.


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