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Is Airplane Water Safe to Drink?

Most of us drink bottled water or sodas when we fly, but sometimes we use water from the airplane lavatory to take a pill or brush our teeth. Airlines insist this water is safe, but recent studies found dangerous things lurking in the tank water, including E. coli, the germ that causes Legionnaire?s disease, Salmonella, Staphylococcus and tiny insect eggs.Flight attendants will even hand this water out, when they run out of bottled water. Under federal regulations, it?s supposed to be safe to drink. ?It?s absolutely drinkable,? says a United Airlines spokesman.

A group of scientists took sample vials on 14 different flights from Atlanta to Sydney, Australia. On each flight, they collected water from the galley and lavatory taps, sealed them up and sent them to a lab for analysis. The results were a long list of microscopic life you wouldn?t want to drink. And contamination was the rule, not the exception?almost all of the bacteria levels were tens or even hundreds of times above U.S. government limits. ?This water is not potable by any means,? says Donald Hendrickson, the director of Hoosier Microbiology Laboratories, the company that tested the samples.

?Someone with dirty hands must have used that sink,? says a spokesman from National Airlines, where the water sample came back positive for coliform bacteria. But human contamination wouldn?t explain the results. Some of the water collected on a short flight to St. Louis contained Pasteurella pneumotropica, a bacterium carried by rodents. A Chicago-to-Los Angeles trip turned up Pseudomonas, a highly resistant bacterium associated with a range of infections. The lab counted more than four million per milliliter in a single sample, which about the same bacterial concentration you find in a tainted raw hamburger, says Hendrickson.

?If I were the airline, I would worry about what these results say about the sanitation in their galleys,? says Abigail Salyers, of the American Society for Microbiology. Travelers have long worried about the quality of recirculated in airline cabins. But the tank water may be the real reason fliers find themselves getting ill after plane trips.

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