Airplane Drinking Water: (Much) Dirtier Than You Think?

A cup of water sitting on airplane tray tableBefore you order a glass of water, coffee or tea on your flight…you may want think again.

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According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tap water aboard more than 1 in 10 commercial airplanes regularly tests positive for coliform bacteria, which is the name given to a wide group of organisms, including fecal bacteria and E. coli, that indicate outside contamination.

After NBC 5 in Texas  filed a Freedom of Information Act request, it reported on data which showed that tap water in 12 percent of U.S. airlines tested positive for coliform bacteria at least once.

In 2009, the EPA issued new safety rules for aircraft drinking water after tests conducted in 2004 found coliform contamination rates aboard U.S. airlines that were as high as 15 percent. Among other things, the new rules mandated routine disinfection, flushing the water system, and  notification of passengers and crew members in the event of violations.

Despite the new regulations, it appears contamination still regularly occurs, though the rates of contamination vary from airline to airline. According to NBC 5, American Airlines, for instance, had coliform in 13 percent of their aircraft, while Southwest Airlines had coliform contamination rates of only 3 percent, none of which was positive for E. coli.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless, reports the EPA, though they originate from animal and human intestines. Nevertheless, the presence of the bacteria in drinking water will always raise red flags.

Put another way: “There’s poop in the water if there’s E. coli in the water, and that’s not a good thing,” Brenda Wiles, a lab manager certified to test drinking water aboard aircraft, told NBC 5.

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What You Can Do On The Plane

Your best beverage bet? Don’t ask for coffee, tea or water on a plane. Instead, stick to enjoying a glass of vitamin-rich juice on the plane. Also, be sure to carry an empty water bottle with you that you can fill up at a water fountain before boarding your flight. Or, buy a bottle of water after you clear security.