WASHINGTON—The water aboard airlines is more contaminated by traces of human or animal waste than first thought, federal environmental officials said Wednesday.
A second round of federal testing in the bathrooms and kitchens of 169 passenger airplanes, conducted in November and December 2004, found coliform in nearly one in five of the aircraft. Coliform is the key indicator for fecal contamination and germs that cause disease.
The contamination rate—17.2 percent—is higher than the 12.7 percent discovered in tests three months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency announced.
One contaminant not found in these current official tests was E. coli bacteria, which can cause serious disease. In the EPA's first tests, E. coli showed up in two planes. During the second round of tests, the bacteria were found on two planes at the Houston-George Bush International Airport, said Thomas Skinner, the EPA's enforcement chief. But those results and others from Houston are being disputed and weren't included in the current tally, Skinner said.
Coliform "is an indication that the water is getting contaminated," said Dr. Howard Frumkin, chairman of the environmental health department at Emory University's School of Public Health. "You'd really like not to find it in water that you're drinking or that people are going to wash their hands with."
Frumkin cautioned that the presence of coliform isn't a perfect indicator for the prospect of disease. Still, people prone to illnesses should avoid drinking airplane tap water, using ice cubes, brushing teeth with airline bathroom water and perhaps even washing hands with bathroom water, he said.
The EPA wouldn't identify the airlines involved or specific flights, but did reveal where planes were when they were tested and where they'd flown from. It tested planes at 12 airports, finding coliform in planes at seven of them. The biggest offender was Miami International Airport, where 39 percent of the country's positive tests were found.
The tests and positive results were found in big and little planes and in different kinds of airliners.
The EPA conducted its second round of testing because the airline industry contended that the first round of tests weren't done correctly. The new results, Skinner said, show that water on airplanes is a problem.
"It's of concern to us and should be to the airlines, as well," Skinner said Wednesday. "We were surprised and the airlines were probably surprised that the numbers came in as high as they did."
The Air Transport Association, the airline industry lobby, still disputed how the EPA conducted its tests. Individual airlines are finding a much lower rate of coliform contamination, said association environmental program manager Nancy Young.
"We've got a plan that EPA has approved to address drinking water ... and it's just now getting off the ground," Young said.
That plan permits the airlines to test water and then to report evidence of any contamination to the EPA. It also involves monthly disinfecting of water tankers and disinfecting of airplanes every three months.
Young also criticized the EPA for testing water in the bathrooms, saying it had high potential for cross-contamination. Skinner said the tests were done carefully to eliminate any contamination issues and added that bathroom water is covered by federal safe drinking water regulations.
"That exposure is exactly the same as someone who walks into the bathroom to brush their teeth or wash their hands," Skinner told Knight Ridder.
The EPA found 25 positives for coliform in bathrooms and eight positives in kitchens. Four planes were contaminated in the kitchen and bathroom.
The waste contamination could come from municipal drinking water supplies, special water supply trucks, hoses or the airplanes themselves, or a combination of those factors, Skinner said. One noticeable trend was that airplanes that had been overseas were more likely to be contaminated, but the EPA has no regulatory authority outside the United States, he said.
For his part, Skinner said he brings bottled water on board planes but washes his hands with the airline bathroom water. He doesn't brush his teeth with the water from bathrooms.
"In this business, sometimes you know more than you really want to know," Skinner said. "It does make you think."
For more information, check out the following Web sites:
The Environmental Protection Agency airline drinking water Web site is
The results of EPA's airline water tests is http://www.epa.gov/airlinewater/summarytable.html
The EPA's explanation of what coliform and other contaminants are can be found at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/hfacts.html
The Air Transport Association Web site is
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map