Why Federal Regulations Are Vital for Clean Drinking Water, But Not Sufficient
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We all know the old saying, “water is essential to life.” But a newer, revised version would begin with “clean, safe, and healthy….” In the United States, we are fortunate to have various federal water quality standards that require water treatment facilities to deliver clean, potable drinking water to our taps. However, despite these regulations, many Americans are still exposed to toxic contaminants in their water supplies.
Why is this the case, given such laws? Don’t federal regulations prevent water contamination and ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water? Well, not exactly. While federal drinking water regulations are necessary to establish minimum standards and ensure accountability, they are just one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, communities, individuals, and businesses all have a role to play in protecting and conserving our precious water resources.
In this article, we’ll explore the role of government regulations in drinking water quality, how these regulations help prevent water contamination, and their shortfalls. We’ll also share some tips on what you can do to help protect the quality of your drinking water where government regulations fall short. Let’s dive in!
Why Does Drinking Water Need to Be Regulated?
Drinking water regulations may not be the most exciting topic. However, they are vital for ensuring we have access to clean, safe water for hydrating, showering, cooking, and preparing baby formula, among other things. Without proper government regulation, we could be exposed to harmful pollutants in water that could lead to severe health problems or even death.
The contamination of our water sources is a real threat—one that can come from many sources. For instance, pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields, urban runoff, industrial waste, and sewage can introduce harmful chemicals and microorganisms into our water supply. Exposure to these elements can cause severe illnesses, such as cancer, and even pose a risk to entire communities. That’s why drinking water regulations are so important.
These regulations serve several purposes, including protecting public health, promoting water quality, and ensuring access to safe drinking water. They help limit the specific contaminants in drinking water to prevent waterborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. They also help to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, which can have long-term health effects.
In addition to protecting public health, drinking water regulations are also intended to promote water quality and prevent the degradation of water sources. These regulations help avoid contamination from natural and human-made sources, ensuring our water is as clean as possible.
Finally, drinking water regulations ensure all Americans can access safe and affordable drinking water, regardless of where they live. By establishing minimum standards for water quality, treatment, and distribution and setting requirements for testing and reporting, these regulations help ensure our drinking water is safe.
In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at a few of these regulations and their role in protecting the health of Americans.
Government Regulations for Drinking Water in America
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary agency responsible for regulating drinking water in the United States, setting specific regulations to help ensure your drinking water meets various safety standards. Let’s explore some of these regulations.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
At the heart of America’s drinking water regulatory framework is the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Enacted by Congress in 1974 and amended twice in 1986 and 1996, the SDWA is the principal federal law in the United States, designed to ensure the public has access to safe drinking water.
To achieve this, the SDWA empowers the EPA to set and monitor drinking water quality standards nationwide. As part of the SDWA, the EPA has established legal limits and treatment requirements for over 90 contaminants in public drinking water. According to the agency, “The legal limit for a contaminant reflects the level that protects human health and that water systems can achieve using the best available technology. EPA rules also set water-testing schedules and methods that water systems must follow.”
The SDWA also allows individual states to establish and enforce drinking water standards, as long as they are at least as stringent as the EPA’s national standards. This approach recognizes that states are better equipped to understand their unique water challenges and tailor appropriate solutions. By working together, the EPA and individual states can better protect the public’s health and well-being, ensuring every American can access clean, safe drinking water.
Lead and Copper Rule (LCR)
In 1991, the EPA created the Lead and Copper Rule or LCR to regulate the levels of lead and copper in public drinking water. This regulation requires water systems to monitor the water quality at customers’ taps. If the lead concentration exceeds 15 parts per billion (ppb) or the copper concentration surpasses 1.3 parts per million (ppm) in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, water systems must take additional measures to control corrosion. If the lead concentration surpasses the action level for lead, the water providers must inform the public about preventive measures they can take to safeguard their health. Furthermore, public municipalities may be required to replace lead service lines under their control.
Surface Water Treatment Rules (SWTRs)
The EPA established the first of several Surface Water Treatment Rules (SWTRs) in 1989 to reduce illnesses resulting from pathogens in drinking water, such as Cryptosporidium, Legionella, and Giardia lamblia.
Under the SWTRs, water systems must filter and disinfect surface water sources. However, some may use disinfection only for surface water sources that meet specific criteria for water quality and protection of the watershed.
Each rule consists of several significant components that work together to safeguard against microbial pathogens and, at the same time, limit health hazards resulting from disinfection byproducts.
National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs)
The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) are standards and treatment techniques that public water systems must follow. The main goal of the NPDWRs is to protect public health by limiting contaminants in drinking water, including microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and radionuclides. These contaminants can pose a severe risk to human health if not properly controlled, which is why the NPDWRs sets specific limits and guidelines for their presence in drinking water.
National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs)
Drinking-water quality standards are not just about protecting our health but also ensuring our water tastes and smells great. This is where the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs) come in.
While the legally-enforceable NPDWRs protect us from harmful contaminants in drinking water, the NSDWRs set non-mandatory guidelines for 15 impurities that affect the water’s taste, color, and odor. These are known as secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCLs). While they don’t pose a risk to human health at this level, they impact our enjoyment of the water.
The EPA established the NSDWRs to help public water systems manage aesthetic issues and ensure our drinking water is safe and palatable. So, the next time you take a sip of water and enjoy its crisp taste and refreshing aroma, you can thank the NSDWRs for making that possible.
Beyond current standards for contaminants in drinking water, SDWA regulations include a proactive approach to identify potential future threats to our water supply. To achieve this, the EPA maintains a list of unregulated contaminants that could endanger public health. This list is called the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) and is published every five years.
The CCL is more than a passive collection of data. It is a living document that undergoes rigorous review and analysis to determine which contaminants most deserve EPA attention. The agency evaluates the pollutants on the list and decides whether or not to regulate at least five of them through a process known as “Regulatory Determinations.” These determinations are critical to ensuring that the SDWA remains effective in protecting the public’s health from the latest waterborne threats.
By monitoring the CCL, the EPA can proactively identify potential contaminants impacting our drinking water. This approach allows the agency to take action before a problem becomes widespread, safeguarding the nation’s water supply and protecting public health. Through this process, the SDWA remains an evolving and dynamic piece of legislation that helps ensure every American has access to safe drinking water.
Bottled Water Regulations
The SDWA only applies to water provided by public water systems. That means if you get your water from a private well or use bottled water, the SDWA doesn’t apply to your water source. The EPA doesn’t regulate bottled water; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does.
The FDA has established regulations for bottled water similar to EPA standards. Unfortunately, FDA standards are more relaxed. While the EPA sets maximum contaminant levels for over 90 contaminants in public drinking water, the FDA only requires that bottled water be as safe as tap water.
FDA regulations require bottled water to meet specific standards for quality and purity, including limits on certain contaminants. But as we’ve learned from the recent Camp Lejeune water contamination crisis and those that came before and after, tap water can contain potentially dangerous contaminants that can make you sick or cause death over time.
Also, considering that some bottled water comes from municipal sources—sometimes with additional treatment, sometimes without—contamination in some bottled water is highly likely. That’s probably why Consumer Reports found that certain bottled water brands contain detectable levels of various contaminants, including PFAS, heavy metals, bacteria, volatile organic compounds, disinfection byproducts, radioactive elements, etc.
Consumer Confidence Reports
One of the requirements under the SDWA is for every public water system or community water supplier to provide an annual report, also known as a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), to its customers.
The CCR informs the public about local drinking water quality. The report contains information about the source of the water, any contaminants found in the water, and any violations of the national drinking water standards.
Additionally, the CCR may provide tips on how consumers can help protect their drinking water. With this vital information, customers can make informed decisions about their water supply and take steps to ensure that the water remains safe and healthy to consume.
The Impact of Government Regulations on Water Quality
So far, we’ve discussed some of America’s most crucial federal drinking water regulations—from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs). The next question is how these regulations have impacted drinking water quality nationwide.
In the mid-20th century, there was no federal regulation to protect drinking water in the United States. Instead, various state- and local-level laws existed to provide sufficient drinking water to growing communities, with little focus on ensuring the water’s safety. However, this changed with the establishment of the EPA, the signing and amendment of the SDWA into law, and other federal and state-level regulations introduced in the following decades.
Implementing and enforcing these regulations helped establish a framework for limiting unwanted contaminants and impurities in water that could otherwise have adverse outcomes. There has been a drastic decrease in people exposed to harmful pollutants—over 90 of them, to be exact—in their drinking water and the concentrations of such contaminants in public drinking water supplies.
America’s federal drinking water regulations have also led to the cleanup of contaminated water supplies. Take per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), for example. After the EPA named it a “contaminant of emerging concern,” many communities have taken (and are still taking) steps to remove it from their drinking water. Furthermore, the Lead and Copper Rule and the Surface Water Treatment Rule have significantly reduced lead exposure and related health problems and exposure to waterborne illnesses, respectively.
In rural areas, the positive impact of these regulations has been even more apparent, with improved water systems supplying cleaner, healthier water for surrounding communities and attracting new businesses and residents, leading to robust economic growth and development. Moreover, these regulations have significantly improved the quality of life for those living in communities affected by contaminated water. In Flint, Michigan, the city is working hard to replace lead pipes and improve the quality of its drinking water, which has helped enhance its residents’ health and well-being.
Of course, implementing these regulations has been challenging. But there is no denying that their overall impact has been overwhelmingly positive, ensuring all Americans have access to safe, clean drinking water.
Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink?
Ensuring the safety of your drinking water isn’t just the government’s responsibility. It’s also up to individuals to take action. But where do you begin?
Request a copy of your water supplier’s latest water quality report.
A great place to start is to check your water supplier’s annual consumer confidence report (a water quality report). Public water suppliers must provide this document to their customers under the SDWA. It includes valuable information on the quality of your drinking water and any contaminants detected. Although water quality reports are intended to help people make informed decisions about their drinking water, they can be confusing and full of complex words and expressions that are often difficult to understand. This guide explains the basic concepts in your water quality report, so you won’t go nuts trying to interpret them yourself.
Test your water at a state-certified laboratory.
If you want to be extra cautious, you can also have your water tested. Many private labs offer water testing services; some even provide home testing kits. By having your water tested, you can determine if it’s safe to drink or if contaminants are present.
Keep your eyes, nose, and tastebuds peeled.
Another way to identify if your water is contaminated is to look for various warning signs. Contaminated water can have a strange taste, odor, or appearance. So, if your water looks, smells, or tastes unusual, it may be contaminated.
Regularly monitoring the quality of your water is crucial in ensuring that it’s safe for consumption. If you do discover that your water is contaminated, don’t panic. There are steps you can take to improve its quality, such as installing a water filtration system or contacting a professional to help address the issue. Remember, safeguarding the quality of your water is essential for your and your family’s health.
Challenges and Controversies Surrounding Federal Drinking Water Regulations
While the government provides regulatory standards for public municipalities to treat water, many challenges and controversies surround them. One such challenge is that government regulations are often more reactive than proactive. Laws are created in response to identified risks and issues, meaning there may be regulation gaps that leave us vulnerable to emerging contaminants. For example, it wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists fully understood the dangers of lead in drinking water. And even now, lead pipes and fixtures still exist in some homes and buildings.
Another concern is that government regulations can be subject to change or rollback. The current political climate may influence which rules are enforced or even eliminated, leaving us with weaker protections for our drinking water. The recent decision to roll back regulations on the disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal that can contaminate drinking water, is just one example of the potential consequences of regulatory rollbacks.
Lastly, government regulations usually don’t address all sources of contamination. While rules can target specific contaminants, such as lead or arsenic, they may not effectively combat emerging or unknown pollutants. Additionally, resource constraints can limit regulations, as government agencies may need more funding and staff to enforce rules effectively.
How Water Filtration Can Pick Up Where Government Regulations Fall Short
Even with federal regulations, some contaminants can slip through the cracks and end up in tap water. For example, leaks, water main breaks, and corroding service lines can introduce lead, copper, bacteria, pesticides, and other contaminants into the treated water as it travels to your home.
Water filtration is a straightforward and economical way to ensure your drinking water is clean, healthy, and safe. Water filtration systems are designed to remove many contaminants from drinking water, including heavy metals, chemicals, sediments, and pathogens. They can also improve the taste and odor of drinking water, making it more palatable and enjoyable to drink.
To choose the right water filter for your home, knowing what contaminants are in your water and what type of system will effectively remove them is essential. Whether you want a simple filter that fits neatly under your kitchen sink or a more robust unit that treats all the water entering your home, there’s a system to combat most water contamination problems.
Affordable, Top-Quality Home Water Filtration Systems from Springwell
At Springwell, we believe every family deserves access to clean drinking water. It is one of our most cherished beliefs and one that fuels our mission to manufacture premium, high-performance water filtration systems that are super-affordable. We design our systems to combat all kinds of contaminants, such as lead, copper, PFAS, bacteria, viruses, etc., so you can know your water is safe and healthy.
What makes our water filtration systems stand out from the rest? Well, let’s take a closer look! Our whole-house filtration system is like a guardian angel for your water supply. It combines state-of-the-art, certified components, innovative features and technologies, and an advanced multi-stage filtration process to filter all the water entering your home. And the result? Pure, clean water from every tap.
And for those who don’t want to sacrifice counter space but still want the best-quality filtered water possible, our under-counter reverse osmosis system is the perfect solution. Installed under your kitchen sink, it uses reverse osmosis in a multi-stage filtration process to remove dissolved solids, heavy metals, viruses, and bacteria. With this system, you can be confident that your water is as pure as possible.
If protecting yourself and your family from potentially dangerous water contaminants is your goal, Springwell’s got you covered. Our unique line of water filtration systems provides the best defense against impurities and contaminants, assuring you that your water is safe to drink. If you have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact us. One of our friendly water experts will be available to answer your questions and provide excellent recommendations for the ideal water filtration system for your needs and budget.
Federal drinking water regulations help protect public health and ensure clean and safe drinking water access for all Americans. They establish minimum standards for water quality and provide a framework for accountability and enforcement. However, regulations are just the beginning.
We can significantly improve our health and well-being by being proactive and taking steps to enhance our water quality. Water filtration systems are a great way to accomplish this goal. They can effectively remove contaminants from our water, providing us access to pure and safe drinking water. By working together, we can safeguard this vital resource for future generations.