In the United States, many of us take for granted that we can safely drink from the tap. We don’t need to worry about the water’s source or the process to make it safe.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Up until 1974, no federal regulations existed to protect our drinking water. Only a handful of state and local regulations were in place to address water scarcity, but nothing to deal with the safety of the water itself.
After the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970 and during the surge of the environmentalist movement that carried through from the ‘60s, however, Congress enacted a federal law to protect the nation’s public water supply. This was known as the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Water Quality in the U.S. Prior to the Safe Drinking Water Act
The first step in regulating drinking water came in 1912 with the U.S. Public Health Service Act. Congress wanted to prevent communicable diseases from being transmitted through water, which required chlorination treatments and other chemical agents designed to limit microbes and pathogenic materials. This also included monitoring and testing of water systems.
Despite the efforts of the U.S. Public Health Service Act, it wasn’t until the ‘60s that the country really became concerned about the environmental and health hazards presented by contaminated water. Between 1961 and 1970, over 46,000 cases of waterborne salmonellosis, gastroenteritis and hepatitis were documented, which are caused by chlorine-resistant pathogens.
Another study in 1970, the Community Water Supply Study, also found that 90 percent of drinking water systems exceeded microbe limits. The Environmental Defense Fund also attributed cancer deaths in New Orleans to contaminated drinking water from industrial waste in the Mississippi River.
Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974
With so much concern over the impact of humans on the environment, President Richard Nixon created the EPA to consolidate the federal government’s environmental efforts and responsibilities, which included the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
It didn’t happen overnight, however. It took almost four years to pass these regulations. Water industry associations pushed for high federal regulation standards, while some congressmen and lobbyists for oil companies resisted the progression of the act. Scientific inconsistencies, enforcement responsibility, criticism of the EPA and other factors also slowed the progress.
Despite all this, the Senate passed the bill for federal supervision and regulation of drinking water in 1973, and the bill was amended in 1974. Finally, it passed both the Senate and the House before being signed into law by President Gerald Ford.
Under this act, the EPA has the power to regulate drinking water, including water used for dishwashers, cooking, bathing and oral hygiene, and its impact on public health. National drinking water regulations concern both publicly and privately owned water systems that serve at least 25 people.
The regulation and implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act works at both the state and federal levels. The EPA enacts the standards for national drinking water with regulations on contaminants that are considered hazardous to public health. These contaminants are classified by the following criteria:
- A contaminant that may have adverse health effects.
- A contaminant that is likely to occur in public water systems at a level that’s a public health concern.
- A contaminant that’s less of a risk to public health with regulation.
Every five years, the EPA announces unregulated contaminants that will be monitored in public water systems. Once set, these are the new standards for states for enforcement.
Public Water Supply Supervision Program
At this time, 49 states have authority over the Pubic Water Supply Supervision Program. This requires that states adopt the following regulations as strictly as the national requirements:
- Develop procedures for purifying water and monitoring its contaminant levels.
- Take authority for penalties.
- Conduct inventory of purification and monitoring systems.
- Maintain records and compliance.
- Provide the EPA with any necessary reports.
- Develop a contingency for safe drinking water during emergencies.
To enforce this program, public water systems must report the results to the state, which then reviews the results and conducts their own testing. If a public water system doesn’t comply with regulations, the EPA must assist to bring the system to compliance.
In the event of a violation that poses a public health threat, public water systems must notify the public within 24 hours. If there’s imminent danger and no action from the state, the EPA has the authority to act.
Current Water Quality
With the Safe Drinking Water Act, the quality of drinking water in the United States has improved dramatically and progressively in the past 40 years. Prior to its implementation, many areas of the country suffered from poor drinking-water quality, whereas now, U.S. citizens drink some of the safest water in the world.
The effectiveness of the Safe Drinking Water Act is also being tested on a regular basis, with many contaminants being added. The EPA is evaluating the risks of microbial contaminants, radon, arsenic, groundwater contaminants and byproducts of disinfection or purification. These evaluations ensure that the risks of drinking water contamination are limited.
Unfortunately, there are some limitations to the power and scope of the act. Smaller public water systems can fall through the cracks, leaving citizens susceptible to contaminated water. Up to half of the population is served by these unregulated systems.
Enforcement of the act has also come under fire, since many Americans live in areas with water systems that were in violation of safety standards. Because of the poor reporting, many of the people affected were unaware of the contamination to their water and couldn’t take proper precautions.
Visit EcoWater Systems
Though the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 improved the availability and accessibility of safe drinking water, there are still limitations that have hampered its ability to protect every person from every contaminant.
Fortunately, you can bridge the gap between public water systems and the water quality in your home with purification and filtration systems. EcoWater Systems offers a variety of drinking water purification solutions to ensure that the water you use for drinking, cooking and bathing is as clean as possible, so you have peace of mind regarding the safety of your family. Contact us today to learn more!