Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dangerous bugs found in water on US planes

Dangerous levels of bacteria have been found in drinking water aboard 15% of planes at US airports, an investigation carried out by the US Environmental Protection Agency has found.

Twenty-four US airlines have now agreed to routinely disinfect their water supplies and monitor water quality in response to the EPA study. "Passengers must feel confident of the water safety on an airplane," says Grant Nakayama of the EPA. "These new protocols will provide protection."

The agreement, announced by the EPA on Wednesday, is a voluntary one. But the agency will spend the next two years drafting mandatory regulations for drinking water on aircraft.

The EPA tested water stored on 327 domestic and international airplanes at 19 US airports from August to September and then November to December during 2004 and found coliform contamination in 3 of every 20 craft.

Although no known illnesses resulted from the contamination, the water could have made people sick, especially those with impaired immune systems. Coliform is a bacterium commonly found in the lower intestine and its presence in drinking water may indicate faecal contamination.

Conflicting findings

Airlines generally serve bottled water to passengers, but often use water from the tanks to make coffee and tea, and passengers may drink or brush their teeth using the taps in lavatories.

The EPA says it is unclear how water becomes contaminated. Previous tests overseen by the EPA but carried out by the Air Transport Association (ATA) in Washington DC, which represents 14 major US airlines, found no contaminated water.

ATA’s assistant general counsel Catherine Andrus said the EPA sampled only a relatively small number of aircraft, and suggests that sampling and testing might not have been done properly.

Outside sources

According to the new agreement, airlines will empty and disinfect water holding tanks on planes quarterly, and disinfect water trucks and hoses every month. They will also test every plane in their fleet once a year and provide the results to the EPA.

If a test comes up positive, the EPA and the public will be notified immediately. As some water may be taken onboard outside of the US, the new guidelines require airlines to also study possible outside sources of contamination.

But Erik Olson, with the environmental campaign group Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington DC, says the agreement may not go far enough. He says testing each aircraft once a year is too infrequent and believes the EPA should have penalised those airlines found to have contaminated water aboard their aircraft.


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