For the InstructorThese student materials complement the Water Science and Society Instructor Materials. If you would like your students to have access to the student materials, we suggest you either point them at the Student Version which omits the framing pages with information designed for faculty (and this box). Or you can download these pages in several formats that you can include in your course website or local Learning Managment System. Learn more about using, modifying, and sharing InTeGrate teaching materials.
Drinking Water Regulation
Who Regulates Drinking Water Quality in the U.S.?
Public drinking water quality is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), although individual states can apply and enforce their own standards if more stringent that those set by the EPA. The SDWA was originally passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974, and has been amended twice (1986, 1996) and now provides standards for drinking-water sources, treatment, and quality at the tap, as well as the disposal of wastewater underground. Private wells pumping groundwater that serve fewer than 25 people are not regulated. They should be tested regularly, however.
It is estimated that there are over 160,000 public drinking-water systems that fall under the aegis of the EPA standards. These standards are health-based and attempt to establish maximum levels (MCL—Maximum Contaminant Level) for possible contaminants that are below those that are thought to cause health problems (you can see specific contaminants and MCLs at EPA: Drinking Water Contaminants - Standards and Regulations. Of course, there are many contaminants for which there are insufficient data to establish stringent limits.
Over the past decade, bottled water, usually sealed in "plastic" containers has become quite popular worldwide. In the U.S., over 10.1 billion gallons of bottled water were sold in 2013, (according to the International Bottled Water Association), revenues were more than $40 billion, assuming an average price of $1 per liter. Although convenience is certainly a factor, the perception has been that such water must be safe to drink—perhaps more safe than tap water—also drives bottled water sales. In the U.S., bottled water is actually regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the EPA. The FDA regulates bottled water as a food (requiring compliance with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) and does not require certified lab testing or violation reporting, even though the FDA does inspect bottling plants and ensures that suitable source waters are used. The FDA also has generally adopted limits for contaminants established by the EPA. Nonetheless, the FDA does not require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers the source of the water, treatment processes, or contaminants it contains, whereas the EPA requires public water systems to report results of their testing annually.
Activate Your Learning!
Public water systems are required to analyze their water monthly for a number of possible contaminants and to meet standards set by the EPA. Download the most recent (4-page pdf) report of the State College Borough Water Authority.
Read and then answer the question in the space provided. Click the "Click for answer" button to reveal the correct answer.
1. What is the difference between an AL (Action Level), MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level), and an MCLG (Maximum Contaminant Goal)?
2. Were any dissolved constituents near the MCL? If so, which ones? What is the most likely source of contaminants for the State College water source?
3. Look up the drinking water report for your hometown. Answer question 2 for your hometown. If you grew up in a rural community and used well water, was your water analyzed or treated? How?
4. Do a bit of research online and briefly outline at least one significant difference between EPA drinking water regulations and FDA bottled water regulations (one not already outlined above).