The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing new rules to test and limit the level of bacteria in water used in commercial flights. But many wonder whether it can make any difference to the passengers.
The EPA issued a 29-page proposal April 9 to make the nation's airlines follow a schedule for sampling water used in galleys and restrooms, as well as for keeping records, notifying the public of problems and taking corrective action. The aim is to limit the level of bacteria, such as coliform, in the water.
Coliform germs, though not harmful in themselves, can signal the presence of serious pathogens such as E. coli.
The EPA and the airlines said there was no documented evidence of anyone becoming sick from airline drinking water. Still, regulators say the water has to meet federal mandates.
"We're upgrading airline drinking-water standards to first-class status with better testing, treatment and maintenance," Benjamin Grumbles
, EPA assistant administrator for water, said when the proposal was issued.
The EPA estimates 63 air carriers and 7,307 public water systems serving 708 million passengers a year would be affected. The total annual cost to comply would be about $8 million, or about 1 cent per ticket, the agency said. Nancy Young
, vice president of environmental affairs at the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. carriers, said the trade group started testing aircraft water under EPA supervision in 2003.
"We were well within testing ranges of any municipal drinking water supply system," Young said. The airlines stress that the water is as safe as the supplies from which it is drawn.
Not everyone thinks the government plan is strong enough. A safety official at the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
, which represents 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, said the airlines would be given too much freedom to inspect themselves and that notification procedures are slow and not retroactive.
"We are a little concerned," said Dinkar Mokadam
, a safety specialist with the union, based in Washington. "I don't think carriers can be relied upon to do self-audits, especially in this economic climate."
Flight attendants have had many cases of unreported gastrointestinal problems that may have come from washing their hands or drinking the water onboard, Mokadam said.
The problem might never have come to light if a 13-year-old California student hadn't done a science project that found seven water samples collected on nine flights contaminated by E. coli
, fecal coliform or salmonella.
The Wall Street Journal picked up on those findings, did its own testing and published a story in 2002 that led the EPA and air carriers to put together a task force.
After the Air Transport Association conducted tests, the EPA ran its own samples from 327 aircraft and found 15 percent tested positive for coliform bacteria writes Cindy Skrzycki of Bloomberg news agency.
Regulators who implement the national primary drinking water rules had to tailor any proposal to a mobile water source, where quick turnaround times between flights and refills from multiple sources are the norm.
"We found there wasn't very good compliance" with the maintenance airlines were supposed to be doing, said Rick Naylor
, the EPA's manager for the drinking water rule. "The idea was to keep their tanks clean."
So the agency entered into legally binding agreements with 45 of the airlines. The carriers agreed to follow a protocol to clean and test water supplies and notify the agency of the results.
In the current rulemaking, the EPA said preliminary sampling of drinking water from 15 airlines showed improvement. The flight attendants said that means some airlines hadn't begun water testing yet. Others want the agency to treat the results as confidential business information.
The proposal says the more times a carrier disinfects and flushes its airborne water tanks, the fewer times it has to conduct tests.
But there are critics like Dave Demerjian who dismiss stories on the state of aircraft water as sensationalized and say that none of the Flight Attendants Association's claims are substantiated.
Unless passengers are guzzling water out of the tap, they wouldn't have much of an opportunity to imbibe contaminated water. Besides the Airline Transport Association points out that bottled water has been the norm on flights for years, ice cubes are prepared by an outside catering service, and because coffee and tea are served hot, any potential bacteria would be killed.
Besides as Nancy Young remarked water on airplanes is only as safe as the source from which it is drawn. If airports are refilling planes with coliform-contaminated H2O, there's not much the airlines can do -- they would have neither the time or the means to get it purified.