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Most Airlines Have Unhealthy Water, Study Finds

Health + Wellness
Most Airlines Have Unhealthy Water, Study Finds

While airlines only serve bottled drinking water directly to customers, they use the plane's water for coffee and tea, and passengers can drink the tap water. Aitor Diago / Getty Images

You might want to think twice before washing your hands in an airplane bathroom.


A recent study from Hunter College's New York City Food Policy Center and the non-profit Diet Detective ranked the water quality of major national and regional airlines, and found that only four of them had "relatively safe, clean water."

"We need to make sure violations have penalties and costs that make airlines want to comply. We should tighten up the rules and add more tests to determine aircraft water quality," The Food Policy Center executive director and Diet Detective founder Charles Platkin told HuffPost Wednesday. "It's not just an ick-factor ― there are public health concerns."

The study ranked the airlines on a zero to five scale based on 10 factors, among them fleet size, federal violations, positive reports of E. coli and coliform in water samples and responsiveness to questions. A score of three or higher meant the drinking water was relatively safe.

Here is how the airlines fared.

National

  1. Alaska Airlines: 3.3
  2. Allegiant Air: 3.3
  3. Hawaiian Airlines: 3.1
  4. Frontier Airlines: 2.6
  5. Southwest Airlines: 2.4
  6. Delta Air Lines: 1.6
  7. American Airlines: 1.5
  8. United Airlines: 1.2
  9. JetBlue: 1
  10. Spirit Airlines: 1

Regional

  1. Piedmont Airlines: 4.33
  2. Sun Country Airlines: 2.78
  3. Envoy Air: 2.11
  4. GoJet Airlines: 2
  5. Trans States Airlines: 1.78
  6. Compass Airlines 1.22
  7. PSA Airlines: 1.22
  8. SkyWest Airlines 1.11
  9. Endeavor Air: 0.78
  10. Air Wisconsin Airlines: 0.68
  11. ExpressJet Airlines: 0.56
  12. Republic Airways: 0.44

While airlines only serve bottled drinking water directly to customers, they do use the plane's water for coffee and tea. Passengers also use it in the airplane restrooms. The study authors recommended that passengers never drink airplane bathroom water, avoid airplane coffee and tea and use hand sanitizer instead of the airplane bathroom sinks.

"I also don't wash my hands in the lavatory anymore," Platkin told HuffPost. "I make sure to have sanitizer. If you wash your hands in what could potentially be unsafe water, it sort of negates the whole process of actually washing your hands. You could be spreading E. coli all over... Sure, it's not likely, but why should you take any chance?"

Airplane water is supposed to be regulated by the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), which was put in place in 2011. It requires airlines to test their water tanks for coliform bacteria and potential E. coli and to disinfect and flush each plane's water tank four times per year. If E. coli is found, the plane must shut off access to the water tank within 24 hours to disinfect and flush it. Platkin told HuffPost he thought the 24-hour window was too lax.

"Why not immediately?" he asked.

While ADWR violations have decreased significantly for both regional and major airlines since 2012, Platkin thought this might be because of weakening enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The number of penalties it has issued against the airlines has declined in recent years.

The agency and the major airlines were also not very cooperative with the researchers, Platkin wrote in the study summary.

"The 'Shame on You' Award goes to the EPA and nearly all major airlines (regional airlines weren't contacted) for their very poor response time and lack of cooperation answering detailed questions," he said. "The EPA didn't answer most penalty-related questions, and Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier did not respond to any questions. Very weak responses — and responses that didn't address questions — were provided by American, United, and JetBlue, which had a large number of violations during the past seven years."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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