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EPA says tap, lavatory water aboard airliners still tainted

Contends 1 in 6 failed to meet safety criteria

WASHINGTON -- Drinking water aboard the nation's airliners is getting worse, not better, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday, even as officials await the implementation of government sanitation orders.

About one in six airliners in the latest round of tests conducted in November and December had drinking water that failed to meet federal safety standards, the EPA said. Similar tests in August and September indicated the water in one in eight aircraft testing positive for coliform bacteria.

The latest round of testing produced positive results for presence of the bacteria in 29 of 169 randomly selected passenger aircraft carrying domestic and international passengers. The tests were done on water from galley water taps and lavatory faucets on planes at 14 airports throughout the United States.

The coliform bacteria -- usually harmless itself but an indicator of the possible presence of other harmful organisms -- was found in planes ranging from small commuter aircraft to jumbo jets. None had E. coli bacteria, which can cause gastrointestinal illness.

''It's an issue that's of concern," said Thomas V. Skinner, acting assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. ''It's not an indication that anyone needs to panic."

Despite the increased rate of aircraft testing positive over a previous round of testing, Skinner said he ''would still maintain that the vast majority of planes do not come up positive."

He said the government does not plan a third round of tests.

The Air Transport Association, representing the major airlines, said in a statement that ''airline drinking water is as safe as the municipal water sources that supply it" and that the group was reassured by the fact there were no positive results for E. coli or other harmful pathogens.

''We believe the most significant finding by the EPA is that there were no positive tests for any harmful bacteria," said Nancy Young, a lawyer who is the Air Transport Association's managing director of environmental programs, whose group also criticized the EPA's methods of testing.

''Once again, the EPA chose to include samples from aircraft lavatories, which are essentially public restrooms, where there's a high potential for cross-contamination of samples," she said. ''We're also concerned that many of the samples came from international carriers that the agency does not regulate."

EPA's tests in August and September found coliform bacteria on 20 of the 158 aircraft. Two planes then also tested positive for E. coli bacteria, which can produce diarrhea and nausea. About 73,000 cases of E. coli infection are reported in the United States each year.

EPA advised passengers with compromised immune systems or others concerned to ask for canned or bottled beverages and refrain from drinking tea or coffee unless made with bottled water.

EPA and 12 major airlines agreed in November on a program aimed at improving sanitation. It included more testing of aircraft. Airliners would be disinfected within 24 hours if coliform bacteria were discovered, unless the agency granted an extension because the plane was outside the United States. Passengers would find signs posted in lavatories and galleys.

Signing agreements with the EPA were Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, America West, ATA Airlines, Continental Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Midwest Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways.

Two additional airlines, Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines, are negotiating separate agreements with EPA.

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