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."
Which airline’s water is the safest? Our recently released study with @nycfoodpolicy rates the quality of water provided to passengers and finds that many airlines are providing unhealthy water. #FoodSafety #WaterSafety #Airlines #WaterQuality https://t.co/TtKQxUGNfP pic.twitter.com/0opaq8SKOr— Charles Platkin (@dietdetective) August 29, 2019
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.
- Alaska Airlines: 3.3
- Allegiant Air: 3.3
- Hawaiian Airlines: 3.1
- Frontier Airlines: 2.6
- Southwest Airlines: 2.4
- Delta Air Lines: 1.6
- American Airlines: 1.5
- United Airlines: 1.2
- JetBlue: 1
- Spirit Airlines: 1
- Piedmont Airlines: 4.33
- Sun Country Airlines: 2.78
- Envoy Air: 2.11
- GoJet Airlines: 2
- Trans States Airlines: 1.78
- Compass Airlines 1.22
- PSA Airlines: 1.22
- SkyWest Airlines 1.11
- Endeavor Air: 0.78
- Air Wisconsin Airlines: 0.68
- ExpressJet Airlines: 0.56
- 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."
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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