People have warned against airplane coffee and tea for decades. Yet, the airlines continue to serve it, and passengers continue to drink it. So the question seems not to be whether the water that runs from the taps of airplane sinks is actually gross, but if consuming gross water is really of any consequence.
First, we must define what “gross” even means in a drinking-water context. Maybe it’s gross to think about water containing any kind of bacteria whatsoever, or maybe it’s only gross when it causes you to expel the contents of your stomach from both ends. The thing is, the water coming from your own tap probably has bacteria in it, too. Further, exactly how your body responds to that bacteria depends heavily upon what bacteria you’re already accustomed to, which is why it’s often recommended for visitors of foreign countries to only consume the bottled variety. The water in these countries isn’t necessarily dirty, it’s just new to you.
Anyway, back to airplanes. The water itself has to come from a local source. Airplanes often re-fill their water tanks after only a few flights — water is heavy, making it impractical to carry enough for many flights at a time. However, planes obviously move around a bit, and the water on a flight may be from an entirely different country than the one you’re departing from. For that reason alone, some flight attendants have discouraged people from drinking whatever beverages onboard that might use this water (namely, the aforementioned coffee or tea).
The pipes and container holding the water have been identified as a culprit in gross coffee as well. Though the EPA has specific rules regarding the cleanliness of airline drinking water, many speculate that these rules aren’t widely enforced. Plus, airlines are only required to clean their pipes four times a year. Again, maybe that’s gross, but it seems unlikely that most folks clean their own pipes at home that often themselves.
In fairness, airplane water does have some potential grossness in it. In studies measuring the water itself, 37 different types of bacteria have been found, including E. coli. None of these, however, appeared to be at dangerous levels. Despite how scary it might seem, you probably already have E. coli in your digestive tract as we speak. All of which is to say, your usual drinking-water habits may not be any better than those on the plane.
As reported by The Points Guy, several flight attendants drink the plane water themselves. In fact, a bigger complaint among passengers and crew alike is that airplane coffee simply tastes bad. But bad coffee isn’t going to kill you. If it did, we would have heard more about it by now (and not just in the form of flight-attendant urban legends). And so, maybe instead of asking whether it matters if airplane water is gross, we need to ask why any passenger wants to drink coffee aboard an airplane in the first place. Wouldn’t you rather just pass out?
The water’s not gross, you’re just gross for wanting to drink coffee on a plane.