Nearly one in eight passenger airliners tested by the Environmental Protection Agency carried drinking water that failed agency standards because it contained coliform bacteria, the agency said Monday.
By way of comparison, 90 percent of municipal U.S. drinking water systems meet EPA standards. The agency's testing showed airline water was only slightly worse: 87.4 percent of the planes tested had water that met EPA standards.
EPA enforcement chief Tom Skinner said passengers whose immune systems are compromised may want to avoid drinking water from airplane galleys or lavatories, although he noted that test results were preliminary.
Of the 158 planes randomly checked in August and September, including small commuter planes and jumbo jets for domestic and international flagged carriers, 20 tested positive for total coliform bacteria, which could signal the presence of other harmful bacteria. Two planes tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which can cause gastrointestinal illness.
"This is something that needs further analysis, but also immediate action," Skinner said. He added that the agency will do more sampling to determine if the bacteria comes from the original water supply, tanker trucks that load water onto planes or the airplanes themselves.
Air Transport Association spokesman Doug Wills said the airlines are confident their drinking water is safe, saying, "No one has gotten sick from airline drinking water." His group represents major airlines.
Air Travelers Association president David Stempler said airline water can stagnate in an airplane's tank and pick up bacteria, particulates and rust. "We recommend to our members that they use bottled water for drinking purposes," Stempler said.
The EPA conceded more testing is needed to figure out why its results differ markedly from similar tests conducted by the Air Transport Association and the Food and Drug Administration, neither of which found any cause for concern, according to the ATA.
Nancy Young, an ATA lawyer, suggested the EPA's samples may have been contaminated because they were taken mostly from aircraft lavatories. Also, one-third of the contaminated samples came from foreign carriers, Young said. Such planes may have brought water from countries with lower standards than those in the United States.