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EPA Finds Water on Airplanes is Feces Contaminated

September 21, 2004

EPA tests find bacteria in water on some planes

By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON < Water on some of the nation's airplanes may not be fit for
drinking or even hand-washing, a preliminary federal study found.

The water on more than one out of every eight airplanes randomly tested by
the Environmental Protection Agency was tainted with coliform bacteria,
evidence, it said, that human or animal waste is in the water.

Federal officials disclosed yesterday that the bacteria were found in water
samples drawn from the restrooms and kitchens of 20 airplanes tested between
Aug. 3 and Sept. 9. In all, 158 airliners were tested.

On two of the planes, E. coli bacteria were discovered in the water. That
form of bacteria can cause serious intestinal illness and even death.

Even though the tests were preliminary and possible pollution citations and
fines are still being negotiated with the airlines, EPA acting enforcement
chief Thomas Skinner said his agency made the data public because fliers had
the right to know about potential health problems with the water. He called
the findings surprising.

The tainted water was found mostly in restrooms, EPA officials said. More
than half of the planes with tainted water originated overseas, pointing to
a possible problem outside of U.S. environmental control, they said.

Skinner suggested that airline passengers who have weakened immune systems
avoid drinking airline water, coffee and tea, and use bottled water instead.
Those people also should avoid using airline water to wash their hands,
added Benjamin Grumbles, the agency's acting water director.

"This is reason for concern," said Dr. Howard Frumkin, chairman of the
environmental health department at Emory University's School of Public
Health. "A low level of caution would be appropriate."

Doug Wills, a spokesman for the airline industry, said that water on planes
was safe and that the EPA study was flawed. He said the airline industry's
own study and an earlier study this year by the Food and Drug Administration
gave airplanes a clean bill of health.

However, the chief of the FDA survey said that it wasn't nearly as broad as
EPA's and that it came to no conclusion about health.

"No one has gotten sick from airline drinking water," Wills said. "Airline
drinking water is as safe as municipal drinking water across the U.S."

In 2003, the EPA found that 3.5 percent of Americans got their drinking
water from public systems that contained coliform bacteria. Airplanes had a
12.5 percent rate of coliform in the preliminary tests.

Skinner declined to identify the airlines with the tainted water, citing
the enforcement negotiations and the preliminary nature of the tests.

Until more testing is done, the EPA is working with airlines to develop new
guidelines on testing frequency and sampling size, what to do when test
results are positive and how often to disinfect and flush their tanks,
Skinner said.

Some of Thomas Skinner's comments were provided by The Associated Press