Passenger aircraft carry tanks of drinking water for use by crew and passengers in flight. The source of drinking water on planes usually is the municipal water supply of the airport where the water is boarded. Water is loaded into aircraft tanks via pipes and hoses from a public water source, or from water tanker trucks.
In the United States, several government agencies share responsibility for the safety of drinking water on airliners.
Over a period of several months in late 2004, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carried out water quality sampling on commercial passenger aircraft. They tested water from galley taps, water fountains, and lavatory faucets.
In two rounds of sampling, a total of 327 randomly selected domestic and international passenger aircraft were sampled. Of those, 49 aircraft (about 15%) were found to be positive for coliform bacteria.
The term coliform describes a group of closely related bacteria that occur naturally in the environment in soil, and in natural bodies of water. They also are found in the digestive tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals.
The presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful, in and of itself. But the presence of this group of bacteria is considered to be an indicator of poor water quality.
In other words, when coliform bacteria are present, it may indicate that other, more harmful types of bacteria and other disease-causing microbes also may be present. For this reason, the EPA sets limits on the amount of coliform bacteria allowed in drinking water.
The most common health problem that results from drinking water contaminated with microbial pathogens is gastrointestinal upset. Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and headaches, and so on.
Those most at risk for becoming ill from microbes in drinking water on aircraft (and elsewhere) are infants, seniors, and those whose immune systems are compromised.
To avoid any problems with contaminated water aboard aircraft, drink bottled water or other canned or bottled beverages instead of tap water.
For drinks, use ice supplied by a caterer, even if the aircraft has an ice-maker aboard.
Water that is boiled for at least one minute is safe to use to prepare coffee, tea, instant soups, and so on. However, it may be safer to use bottled water for these purposes as well.
If you brush your teeth in an aircraft lavatory, use bottled water to wet your brush, and to rinse your mouth.
Here are some trustworthy on-line sources for more information about Aircraft Drinking Water Quality.
Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) - US Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA), December, 2011
Potable Water Regulations for Common Carriers (C.R.C., c. 1105) - Department of Justice, Canada, January, 2012
Potable Water Systems on Board Aircraft - Transport Canada, August, 2011
EPA Announces Drinking Water Agreements with 24 Domestic Airlines, USA - Medical News Today, October, 2005
Air Operators' Responsibilities with Respect to Potable Water Systems On Board Aircraft - Commercial & Business Aviation Advisory Circular, Transport Canada, May, 2005
In the interest of facilitating further research on the topic of Aircraft Drinking Water Quality, we have compiled a list journal articles and other references related to the topic.
Some of the items listed here were used as source material to prepare our information page about Aircraft Drinking Water.
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References, listed alphabetically by author's name.
Hampton, T. (2005). Airline drinking water tainted. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 293, p. 921.
Kelly, M. (1993). Control of infection in an international airline. Occupational Medicine, Vol. 43, pp. 91-94.