Airplane Coffee - If the taste doesn't kill you, the germs might.

December 02, 2008

Are you a germophobe?





Here's something to worry about with the coffee served on an airplane.It might even make you jump out of your airplane seat. Fasten your seatbelt before reading...!





When flying in a commercial plane, bring coffee or tea onboard rather than getting it served to you from the stewards' con board the plane. The reason is kind of scary.





It all started in 2003 when 3-year-old Zach Bjornson-Hooper of Alamo, California took samples of the airplane tap water on a family trip to Australia and New Zealand-- as part of a science project. Guess what -- in tapwater samples from his flights, Zach found a horde of bacteria, and potentially dangerous ones too ranging from E.Coli to bacteria that cause colds. "It was really gross," he says. His tests turned up thousands of bacteria per milliliter of plane tap water. That's much higher than regular tap water that you'd find at home or at Starbucks.





Why care? Because unless you see the steward pouring bottled water into the coffee maker onboard the aircraft (unlikely!) then the coffee and tea are made from the same tank of water that is used to provide water for the sink in airplane bathrooms. The same water that Zach Bjornson-Hooper tested. The tank of water gets refilled when the aircraft is stationed in an airport gate, but it isn't always fully drained, so the water gets old, cloudy, and germy. The technical terms for this is...gross.





Does heating the water to make coffee kill the germs in the water? Not likely. To purify water, experts recommend boiling it vigorously for 1 minute to kill bacteria. That doesn't happen in coffee makers.





Then the Wall Street Journal investigated with an article called How Safe is Airline Water? Bring Your Own Bottle! They flew on flights and sampled the water too. They turned over samples to biologists for lab tests. The tests turned up millions of gross bacteria per milliliter of airplane tap water. "This water isn't drinkable by any means," said Donald Hendrickson, director of Hoosier Microbiology Laboratories in Muncie, Indiana, in the article.





Then the EPA investigated. Maybe they just wanted a better cup of coffee when flying. The EPA found that although most of the bacteria uncovered in airplane tap water weren't pathogenic, the tests did turn up some nasty bugs. Two examples: Pseudomonas, which can cause skin and respiratory infections; and Citrobacter, a coliform or fecal bacteria, which can induce diarrhea and fever. The EPA allows zero coliform bacteria in public drinking water.





So it's possible that if the taste of airplane coffee doesn't kill you, its germs will.





Lesson learned: bring coffee onboard rather than getting served it in your seat.





It's worth noting that upcoming regulations from the EPA might help. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed new guidelines to make the nation's airlines follow a schedule for sampling water used in galleys and restrooms, as well as keeping records, notifying the public of problems and taking corrective action. The aim is to control illnesses by limiting the level of bacteria, such as coliform, in the water.



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