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Extramural Research

Drinking Water

faucet Safe Drinking Water:

The challenge in delivering safe drinking water is one of balance. In protecting the public from health effects caused by microbial pathogens, public water supplies must achieve levels of disinfection that destroy the greatest number of pathogens while minimizing levels of disinfection byproducts that might themselves cause health effects. Providing safe drinking water involves meeting this challenge and simultaneously complying with federal and state standards that ensure protection from chemical contaminants. Tap water that meets all EPA and state standards is considered safe to drink for the general public.

However, there are occasional, rare incidents of disease outbreaks in U.S. populations served by Public Water Systems (PWSs), in some cases because standards have not been met, and in other cases apparently because the standards did not protect all exposed individuals. In particular, it has been found that some contaminants in even low concentrations pose special health risks to particular groups of people. These groups include infants, young children and the elderly. They also include people with compromised immune systems due to certain illnesses, or because they are undergoing chemotherapy. Drinking water standards are being strengthened to reduce the risk of outbreaks. However, some scientific uncertainty remains about the degree to which current standards and monitoring requirements protect all individuals from all possible effects of microbial pathogens or chemical pollutants.

EPAs Drinking Water Research Program:

Drinking water is one of EPAs high-priority research areas. Threats to drinking water safety come from the occurrence of chemical contaminants or pathogens in drinking water. The 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) direct EPA to conduct research to strengthen the scientific foundation for standards that limit public exposure to drinking water contaminants. EPA is also charged to identify groups that may be at greater risk than the general population following exposure to contaminants in drinking water.

The 1996 Amendments contain specific requirements for research on waterborne pathogens such as Cryptosporidium and Norwalk virus, disinfection by-products (DBPs), arsenic, and other harmful substances in drinking water.

In response to these requirements, EPA has established an integrated, multi-disciplinary research program to provide scientific data and cost-effective technologies to improve the assessment and control of drinking water risks.

Long Term Goals:

The 2003 draft version of the Drinking Water Research Program Multi-Year Plan (PDF) (32 pp, 200 KB, about PDF), EPA drinking water research is captured by three long term goals:

  1. By 2010, develop scientifically sound data and approaches to assess and manage risks to human health posed by exposure to specific regulated waterborne pathogens and chemicals, including those addressed by the Arsenic, M/DBP, and Six-Year Review Rules;
  2. By 2010, develop new data, innovative tools and improved technologies to support decision making by the Office of Water on the Contaminant Candidate List and other regulatory issues, and implementation of rules by states, local authorities and water utilities;
  3. By 2009, provide data, tools and technologies to support management decisions by the Office of Water, state, local authorities and utilities to protect source water and the quality of water in the distribution system.

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