Government Regulations On Cruise Ship Water Potability
You’ve just left your home port and are sailing into the sunset. The last thing you want to worry about is the potability of the drinking water in your cabin room. Is it safe to drink the water on a cruise ship? Should you trust the glass on your bathroom sink or the cubes from the bar’s ice machine?
The water quality on your cruise ship generally meets the same standards as the drinking water in your home. If you’re sailing from a US port the water quality must adhere to government-regulated standards. And these are on top of guidelines cruise companies implement themselves to ensure their own reputation.
Cruise ships get their drinking water either from a shore supply and store it in tanks, or they manufacture potable water while at sea through a process like reverse osmosis or distillation, much the same way shore-based desalianation plants work.
But that’s not to say accidents can’t happen or violations don’t occur. Just like your municipal water supply, sometimes things go wrong. However in these rare incidents your captain and cruise staff will always notify you, and such cases are treated as serious emergencies.
Under a federal law first passed in 1944, any ship carrying at least 13 passengers with a foreign itinerary that includes a US port is subject to random unannounced inspections of its drinking water at least twice every year.
These are performed by inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of its Vessel Sanitation Program. When inspectors come to check a ship they look at a wide range of factors relating to sanitation and the ship receives a score on a 100-point basis. The latest 2018 CDC operational manual that inspectors use to make a sanitation report is 291 pages long, with 19 pages devoted to water potability.
It says that all water taken aboard from shore supplies “must be from a potable source that meets World Health Organization (WHO) standards for potable water.”
CDC inspectors evaluate everything from the way a ship’s drinking water is stored and how pipes are laid out to the water itself. Typically taking between 8-10 hours to complete, these inspections will check for things like:
- Presence of E. coli
- Chlorine (halogen) and acidity levels
- Functioning of alarms that alert for high or low chlorine levels in the water supply
- Logs and documentation that provide details on the ship’s history of water quality assessments
The CDC inspectors can even give the staff in charge of the potable water system a verbal on-the-spot test to see if they they know enough to be able to adhere to the manual’s guidelines. If an inspector finds the ship cannot properly chlorinate its drinking water, something like that is considered an imminent public health risk, the inspector can issue a no-sail order.
One of the best things about the CDC’s inspection program is that you can search for inspection scores for individual ships and cruise companies online through the CDC’s report directory, complete with everything from the worst violations to ships that passed flawlessly. We made a list based on these sanitation reports of the cruise ships with the best and worst scores based on the most recent data, which you’ll find at the end of this article.
Cruise Ships Have Their Own Incentive To Keep Your Drinking Water Safe
Failed sanitation inspections or sick passengers are the last things a cruise company wants to headlines about. Every company is looking out for its own self-interest, which means they have a strong incentive to keep your water safe to drink. Here are statements about drinking water from just a few of the major cruise line companies:
Carnival Corporation: “Our potable water is regulated by the Centers for Disease Control U.S Public Health Service Vessel Sanitation Program (CDC-USPH-VSP). Among various other requirements, the water on board is halogenated to USPH standards, regardless of where/how the water is obtained.”
Royal Caribbean: “Yes, there is tap water provided on your cruise to drink and it is indeed very safe to drink. Every Royal Caribbean ship has a meticulously maintained water treatment/storage system that supplies all of the ships potable water.”
Norwegian Cruise Line: “All of our ships produce water in accordance with the guidelines and requirements as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Public Health Service, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Centre for Environmental Health.”
Princess Cruises: “Fresh water comes from two different sources: produced water (seawater that is either evaporated and re-condensed or produced by a reverse osmosis plant and treated with minerals and chlorine); or bunkered water, which is purchased from port communities and stored in designated potable water holding tanks. We bunker water from ports where we know water is plentiful, high in quality and costs less than the fuel needed to produce water onboard.”
Be Honest, How Safe Is Cruise Ship Drinking Water Really?
In reality “safe” water is a relative term. In 2000 E. coli-contaminated drinking water in a Canadian city killed seven and sickened hundreds more. Contaminated tap water in Flint, Michigan was a national election issue in 2016. That same year the mayor of Milwaukee announced that anyone living in a home built before 1951 should install a water filter to prevent drinking water contamination.
Just as municipal drinking water supplies can have problems, so can those on cruise ships. In theory market forces should have a much stronger immediate influence on the cruise industry than they do on a city government. Nevertheless, some have pointed out that compared to other private sector businesses, government oversight of the cruise industry is relatively lax.
“Local authorities can close a restaurant, they can fine a restaurant, and that’s really powerful,” said a Miami-based attorney specializing in maritime law. He was speaking with a reporter from the Seattle Times for a February 2018 article about cruise industry regulations. But, he said, “That just does not exist on cruise ships.”
That was a reference to the perhaps-too-cozy relationship between the cruise ship industry and regulators.
Even though the Vessel Sanitation Program is under the auspices of the CDC, you might be surprised to learn that the cruise ship companies who are inspected actually pay for their inspections, with the price going up proportional to ship size. And it’s not altogether unfair to say that with that payment comes influence.
Carnival, Royal, Norwegian, and other cruise companies were all involved in creating the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program’s guidelines for 2011, according to the Seattle Times report. Like any other industry, the balance between regulations and hiring insiders who know how to regulate can be tricky.
But even with the closest relationship between the cruise industry and regulators, the self-interest to avoid bad press from passengers who got sick drinking a ship’s water is still just as powerful as ever.
Starting in 2016 Norwegian Cruise Lines won’t even let you carry factory-sealed bottled water on your person unless its for baby formula or a medical device. Even with the best legal department and the most specific indemnification clause, you can bet that with a policy like that the odds of winning a class action lawsuit are near-perfect for passengers sickened from the ship’s water.
And even the most vocal critics of a possible cozy relationship between government regulators and the cruise ship industry can’t point to any major illness outbreak or passenger injury caused by contaminated drinking water. According to a January 2018 article in Bloomberg about the secrets of cruise ships, the real threat to passenger health is from other passengers. “Nothing is scarier to cruisers than a Norovirus outbreak–which ship doctor De La Rosa says is almost always caused by a passenger who has brought the illness aboard, rather than poor sanitary conditions on the ship.”
Best And Worst Cruise Ship Sanitation Scores
Using data from the most recent 2018 CDC inspection reports, these are the cruise ships that have scored the best and worst. Remember that CDC inspections are based on a 100-point scale, and evaluate the ship’s overall sanitation, including its quality of potable water.
Of the 154 inspections that have taken place as of early November 2018, 14 ships (9%) scored a perfect 100. Those were:
- AIDAVITA – Aida Cruises
- Amsterdam – Holland America Line
- Carnival Breeze – Carnival Cruise Lines
- Celebrity Reflection – Celebrity Cruises
- Crystal Serenity – Crystal Cruises
- Disney Dream – Disney Cruise Lines
- Emerald Princess – Princess Cruises
- Grand Princess – Princess Cruises
- Regal Princess – Princess Cruises
- Rhapsody of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International
- Sea Princess – Princess Cruises
- Serenade of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International
- Star Princess – Princess Cruises
- Zuiderdam – Holland America Line
And from those same 154 most recent sanitation reports, six ships (4%) scored below 86, which the CDC considers as being not satisfactory:
- Kydon – Ferries Del Caribe – scored 78
- Safari Endeavor – Un-Cruise Adventures – scored 79
- Silver Wind – Silversea Cruises – scored 79
- Carnival Liberty – Carnival Cruise Lines – scored 80
- Grand Celebration – Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line – scored 80
- Ocean Dream – Japan Grace – scored 85