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The water on these airlines is so dirty you shouldn’t wash your hands, expert says

To be safe, travelers shouldn’t even wash their hands on some airlines because the water quality could be unhealthy, a study released last month advises.

JetBlue and Spirit Airlines were the two major carriers to rank lowest on the 0-to-5 scale that researchers used to compare airline water quality, with each earning a score of 1, according to the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center and DietDetective.com, which released the findings on Aug. 29. Those airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Do not wash your hands in the bathroom,” Charles Platkin, director of the Food Policy Center, wrote in a post on the study. “Bring hand-sanitizer with you instead.”

Researchers said the study “reveals that the quality of drinking water varies by airline, and many airlines have possibly provided passengers with unhealthy water.”

“If you wash your hands in what could potentially be unsafe water, it sort of negates the whole process of actually washing your hands,” Platkin said, according to HuffPost. “You could be spreading E. coli all over... Sure, it’s not likely, but why should you take any chance?”

Platkin also recommended that travelers avoid drinking coffee and tea provided on planes and “NEVER drink any water onboard that isn’t in a sealed bottle.”

The water quality analysis was based on 10 metrics, including the number of Aircraft Drinking Water Rule violations an airline had from 2012 to 2019, E. coli and coliform water sample reports and “cooperation in providing answers to water-quality questions,” researchers said.

The authors said that since the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule went into effect in 2011 airlines have had to test water tanks for possible E. coli and coliform bacteria, and either disinfect and flush plane water tanks quarterly or disinfect and flush yearly with monthly testing.

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Platkin wrote that “testing for coliform bacteria is important, because their presence in drinking water indicates that disease-causing organisms (pathogens) could be in the water system.”

Other major carriers scored higher than Spirit and Jetblue: Alaska and Allegiant were at the top among major airlines, scoring 3.3 out of 5, followed by Hawaiian Airlines at 3.1. Researchers wrote that “a score of 3.0 or better indicates that the airline has relatively safe, clean water.”

Scores for the rest of the top airlines included Frontier at 2.6, Southwest at 2.4, Delta at 1.6, American at 1.5 and United at 1.2, according to the study.

Researchers pointed to “a poor response from JetBlue representatives and a poor water safety record” in explaining the carrier’s poor water quality score, writing that “JetBlue had ... a very high number of average number of violations per aircraft” and “a relatively high number of water samples testing positive for E. coli.”

Spirit stood out for concerning reasons as well, researchers said.

“Spirit had the highest number of average of violations per aircraft among the major airlines,” the researchers wrote. “Additionally, the airline had a high number of violations for failure to conduct routine monitoring and failure to perform corrective actions as required.”

There were also worrisome findings among regional airlines such as ExpressJet Airlines, which operates as United Express and had a health score of just 0.56 — with 12 water samples testing positive for E. Coli from 2012 to 2019 and 679 testing positive for coliform over the same time period, according to the researchers.

“Abysmal. ExpressJet had the highest average number of violations,” researchers wrote. “The airline also had a very high number of lavatory water samples testing positive for E. coli and violations for failure to conduct routine monitoring, failure to perform required corrective actions and failure to collect repeat or follow-up samples of a coliform-positive result.”

ExpressJet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.
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