In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized safe drinking water as a basic human right. Unfortunately, about 2 billion people globally cannot enjoy this right as they are exposed to contaminated water sources. Traditionally, microbial contamination has posed the greatest risk to drinking water and has been the leading cause of diarrhoeal diseases. Urbanization and industrialization have led to the emergence of other forms of contamination, including chemicals such as fluoride and arsenic, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and toxic microplastics.
Drinking contaminated water can cause a number of health issues affecting the gastrointestinal, reproductive, and neurological systems. In the U.S., the federal law requires that all public water is tested to ensure that the concentration of contaminants is negligible. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards and regulations for public water systems. This includes monitoring water contaminants such as chemicals and disease-causing organisms.
Here are some of the EPA’s drinking water regulations:
1. The Safe Drinking Water Act
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was created in 1974 to ensure the safety of public drinking water. This Act empowers the EPA to set quality standards for drinking water and also to ensure that state agencies and local authorities adhere to those standards. The SDWA spells out testing requirements and maximum contaminant levels for more than 90 contaminants that may be present in public drinking water.
2. The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations
The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) are legally enforceable EPA standards and treatment techniques that apply to all public water systems. They were created to ensure that a safe level of contaminants in drinking water is adhered to and hence public health and safety is maintained. These are mandatory standards for all public water systems.
Public drinking water must be tested for various contaminants. Some of them are:
Microorganisms: For example, Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, and Legionella
Disinfectants: For example, Chloramines (as Cl2), Chlorine dioxide (as ClO2), and Chlorine (as Cl2)
Disinfection Byproducts: For example, Bromate, Chlorite, Haloacetic acids (HAA5), and Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
Inorganic Chemicals: For example, Antimony, Arsenic, Asbestos, Barium, Cyanide, and Cadmium
Organic Chemicals: For example, Acrylamide, Alachlor, Atrazine, Benzo(a)pyrene (PAHs), and Chlordane
Radionuclides: For example, Alpha particles, Beta particles, and photon emitters, Radium 226, Radium 228, and Uranium
3. National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations
The National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR) are guidelines set by the EPA to help public water systems manage their water quality in non-health related issues such as the smell, color, and taste of drinking water. These are not mandatory standards but it is advisable that public water systems adhere to them for quality purposes. When the standards are not met, the water may appear cloudy or may have a bad odor and hence be unappealing to the public.
4. Unregulated Contaminants
This falls under the SDWA and stipulates a process that must be followed by the EPA when reporting unregulated contaminants. Such contaminants may need to be regulated in the future but do not impose any requirements on public water systems. The EPA publishes the list of unregulated contaminants every five years under a list that is referred to as “Contaminant Candidate List,” or CCL. The CCL is used to identify possible water contaminants and this information is used in decision-making.
At each five-year review, the EPA decides whether to move five or more of the contaminants to the regulated list, referred to as “Regulatory Determinations.” The decision is made based on health effects of the contaminants and threat to public health, and the EPA solicits public opinion on contaminants that should be regulated.
5. Bottled Water Regulations
Bottled water regulations do not fall under the EPA but rather fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. The FDA sets standards for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for bottled water. This requires that bottle water is:
Manufactured and transported in sanitary conditions to ensure bacteriological and chemical safety
Sampled and tested, including the source and the final bottled product
The FDA monitors the safety of bottled water under its food safety program. The agency ensures that bottled water is obtained from an approved source and that all processes involved are sanitary and hence do not introduce any contaminants to the water.
6. Consumer Confidence Reports
The EPA requires that all community water suppliers provide consumers with a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) that provides information on the quality of drinking water each year. This report should include information on the source of the water, possible contaminants in the water, and measures that consumers can take to protect their drinking water. Not all CCRs look alike as each is tailored to the nature of the water in a particular area. It is important to understand safe and unsafe levels of contaminants in water. Contaminants marked as “violated” are likely to be present in amounts that are higher than what the EPA allows. This report is usually sent by mail or it can be made available online.
Testing Drinking Water for Contaminants
Even though most residents of the U.S. have access to safe drinking water, contamination of drinking water is still considered a threat to public health and safety. Likely contamination sources include sewage leakages, land use practices such as the use of fertilizers and pesticides, manufacturing using chemicals and exposure to naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic. Hence, the CDC underscores the importance of water quality and testing.
Water testing ensures that drinking water is safe and suitable for human use. Drinking water should be tested frequently to monitor changes in water in case there is an unnoticed source of pollution, such as a chemical spill. Laboratories that test drinking water play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of drinking water.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) supports labs that test drinking water by automating and streamlining sample and data management, thereby boosting productivity. A water LIMS system can be integrated with all analytical instruments a lab houses to automatically transfer test results to a LIMS as soon as testing is complete. This eliminates manual errors, maintains data integrity, and increases lab efficiency. The lab can then generate custom test reports and securely send them to the customers and regulatory agencies. A water LIMS system also helps water testing labs keep up with federal and state regulatory requirements.
Hundreds of millions of people are exposed to contaminated drinking water globally. Key causes of pollution include microbial contamination and inadequate management of urban and industrial wastewater. Water contamination is responsible for the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and more. To keep contamination in check, the U.S. EPA has established standards and regulations for a wide range of contaminants in public drinking water. For instance, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) states the testing requirements and maximum contaminant levels for about 90 contaminants. Labs that carry out water testing are integral to any pollution control program, and thus their productivity and accuracy are paramount. The use of water LIMS system in such labs goes a long way in achieving the productivity and accuracy goals by eliminating manual errors, automating workflows, and maintaining data integrity.