AIRLINE passengers, already subject to numerous discomforts and indignities while traversing the nation's skyways, now have one more hazard to worry about: bad water.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency randomly tested fresh-water taps in airliners on 169 domestic and international routes and found coliform bacteria on 29, or 17 percent.
In tests last year, coliform bacteria, which indicate the probability of disease-causing organisms, were found on 20 of 159 flights, 12 percent.
That the problem is getting worse rather than better should not surprise veteran travelers. Crowding 200 or so people elbow to elbow in a long but slender metal tube and making them breathe recirculated air almost guarantees an unhealthy atmosphere. Why should water be different?
Wise air travelers already bring bottled water with them on all but the shortest flights to sip occasionally to ward off the dryness inherent in airliner cabins. Considering the EPA's findings, smart passengers - especially those with compromised immune systems - will want to use the bottled stuff not only to drink but also to brush their teeth and wash their hands.
The EPA tested water from taps both in galleys, where what passes for airline food is handled, and in restrooms, frequently the site of diaper-changing chores for traveling families. So perhaps it is not surprising that there is some cross-contamination.
On-board water, stored in a tank in the plane's belly, sometimes is used to prepare tea and coffee for passengers. The agency now advises passengers to refuse beverages unless they are made with bottled water.
The airlines whose planes were tested were not identified by the EPA, which is an outrage from the standpoint of consumer protection, but no real surprise given the Bush Administration's demonstrated contempt for regulation in general.
The Air Transport Association, an industry group, chose to minimize the importance of the findings, contending that because the EPA turned up coliform bacteria but no actual harmful organisms such as deadly E. coli, "Airline water is safe and the public shouldn't be alarmed."
We doubt, however, whether health-conscious fliers will make that blurred distinction, and they shouldn't be forced to.
Most major airlines already have signed agreements with the EPA to ensure water quality for their passengers. Now it's up to the government to strictly enforce those rules before the problem gets out of hand and a lot of people get sick.