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September 21, 2004

BehindTheMedspeak: One more reason flying can make you sick


This morning's USA Today brings the not-so-cheery news that the water in airplanes is contaminated with fecal bacteria.

About one in eight U.S. passenger planes were found to be infected with coliform bacteria.

So - bring your own, and don't bother washing your hands in the lavatory: you might as well wash them in the toilet bowl.

Just one more reason flying is not only unpleasant, but potentially hazardous to passengers.

As it is, we've had to accept decreased fresh air flow in the cabin as airlines cut corners to save every penny to avert bankruptcy.

Providing fresh air to the cabin costs extra, so it's been cut back.

Here's the disturbing USA Today story, by Elizabeth Weise.

Tests point to bacteria in water on airplanes

The next time you fly, you might want to ask for bottled water. And bring along some hand wipes while you're at it.

Random tests of drinking water from 158 U.S. passenger planes found that about one in eight were contaminated with bacteria from human waste, the Environmental Protection Agency reported Monday.

Tanks on aircraft provide water for both lavatory sinks and galleys and to make coffee and tea.

They are typically topped off each time a plane lands, which means each airport is a potential source of contamination, either via its own water supply or from contaminated nozzles on the hoses used to fill the tanks.

The tanks are flushed and disinfected regularly.

The EPA suggests that people with compromised immune systems - such as cancer and transplant patients and people with HIV - stick to canned or bottled water when flying and avoid washing their hands or brushing their teeth in plane lavatories.

Water quality on airplanes is a unique problem, says Tom Skinner of the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

"Because planes travel the globe over the course of a day, a plane can take on water at 10 sites, including sites outside the United States."

The agency found that 20 of the water tanks tested were infected with coliform bacteria, and two also tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Coliform bacteria indicate that the water has been contaminated with fecal material.

E. coli is also associated with human waste.

"We take fecal contamination seriously. It can have an acute gastrointestinal impact," says Ben Grumbles of EPA's Office of Water.

Although the forms of coliform and E. coli found in the tanks don't usually make people sick, they are indicators that other organisms might be present that could pose a danger to public health.

Symptoms of such water-borne illness include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

But the public shouldn't overreact, says Phyllis Kozarsky, chief of travel health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have not had reports of water-borne outbreaks on planes. People have not become ill, and we have no reports of illness," she says.

The samples were collected in August and September from a wide range of aircraft types and carriers.

The agency also tested for residual chlorine to determine whether the water systems had been disinfected.

The tests provide a statistically valid profile of aircraft water quality in the USA, the EPA says.

The agency says the data are preliminary, and it is undertaking a more thorough testing program to understand the full scope of the problem.

"We're pursuing what may be violations of our regulations and reviewing whether we need to strengthen our guidelines to carriers," Skinner says.

"We've notified the airline industry of our findings, and we're actively pursing additional ways to clean the water."

The Air Transport Association, the trade organization of the major U.S. airlines, disputed the findings.

The organization said that testing by the Food and Drug Administration as well as its own tests found that "airlines' drinking water was free of contaminants that might pose health risks," according to a press release.

"People have to use common sense and not have greater expectations than they should have. ... An airplane is not their home," the CDC's Kozarsky says.

But even home water might not be a good comparison.

Although the 13% failure rate in airplane water might seem high, the EPA's Grumbles says 10% of the U.S. population gets water from sources that do not meet federal water quality standards.

September 21, 2004 at 09:06 AM | Permalink


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