Drinking Water Regulations & Standards: An International Perspective

April 25, 2007
Many water insiders are well-informed of the U.S. quality standards, but may be unfamiliar with the ever-evolving international standards

About the author: Steve Tischler is director of sales and marketing for National Testing Laboratories, Ltd. He can be reached at 800.458.3330, or by e-mail at [email protected].

In the U.S., drinking water, whether supplied by public water systems or bottled as a food product, is highly regulated. The Safe Drinking Water Act was originally passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974 to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply. The Safe Drinking Water Act directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against naturally occurring and man-made contaminants that could be found in drinking water. The EPA established standards for drinking water based on sound science to protect against health risks.

These National Primary Drinking Water Regulations set enforceable maximum contaminant levels for particular contaminants in drinking water or required ways to treat water to remove contaminants. (Readers can view the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations at www.epa.gov/safewater/ contaminants/index.html#primary.)

Standards of quality for bottled water are derived from the same EPA regulations and administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because bottled water is considered a packaged food product. As a food product, bottled water must meet rigorous quality, safety and labeling standards. Laboratory testing requirements for drinking water are clearly spelled out in these regulations. Test methods, developed for and approved by the EPA or published in Standard Methods, provide the framework by which the standards of quality are evaluated by laboratories.

International Standards: Codex Alimentarius

While many readers should be quite aware of the above-referenced regulations in the U.S., they may be totally unfamiliar with organizations, associations, regulations or standards of quality in other parts of the world. This series will attempt to identify those organizations, associations, regulations and standards of quality for both public water and bottled water around the globe. Whenever possible, a comparison to the U.S. standards from the analytical testing perspective will be made. Hopefully, the reader will gain a new awareness for the global efforts underway to sustain or develop clean water resources and protect public health around the world. This new awareness may spark a thought that leads to a new opportunity or result in a “call to action” in support of an organization’s efforts.

There are many organizations and associations operating globally that are involved with the development of regulations or standards of quality for drinking water. This first article will serve as a brief introduction to some of the most significant organizations affecting drinking water regulations and standards of quality.

In the 1940s, two organizations were founded as part of the newly formed United Nations (U.N.). One was the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO was founded in 1945 as a specialized agency of the U.N. with a stated mandate to achieve food security for all—to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives.1 The FAO is involved in international efforts to defeat hunger throughout the world.

The second organization, founded in 1948, is the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the U.N. for health. The WHO’s stated objective is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. Health is defined in the WHO’s Constitution as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”2 These two organizations significantly influenced the development of drinking water regulations and standards internationally. In 1963, FAO/WHO created the Codex Alimentarius Commission to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program.

In May 1963, the 16th World Health Assembly approved the establishment of the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program and adopted the Statutes of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations. Some of these texts are general, and some specific.5 There are several standards in the codex that deal with drinking water. Many of them deal specifically with bottled water. Table 1 lists some available standards.

A complete list can be found at www.codexalimentarius.net. In future articles, more space will be dedicated to this very important international set of standards.

International Standards: The WHO

Not to be overlooked in the development of standards internationally, the WHO publishes many documents related to the quality of drinking water. On their website under “Health topics” you will find many documents related to drinking water at www.who.int/topics/drinking_ water/en/. Readers can find a bottled water fact sheet and a document entitled “Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality, Third Edition.” Practically speaking, this guideline is one of the most powerful documents used as a reference source in the international community. There is much more to be said about this document in future articles.

There are more important organizations and associations around the world to be discussed in this series. Hopefully, this introduction will pique your interest about the global community involved in development and protection of world water resources.

Note: Look for next month’s article, which will expand on the role of Codex Alimentarius, focus on the international guidelines of drinking water quality and introduce some of the international bottled water associations and organizations.

About the Author

Steve Tischler