It Rains, It Pours

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

As if U.S. airlines don't have enough to worry about, with rising fuel prices, mergers and bankruptcies, a safety-inspection crackdown and countless disgruntled customers. Now along comes a federal requirement to upgrade the drinking water on planes.

The Environmental Protection Agency 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 is 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.

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