National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
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International Drinking Water Regulations
The Developed World Sets the Standards

by Richard Radcliff • President • Radcliff Water Consulting

Editor’s Note: This article examines numerous drinking water standards around the world because the world’s standards will eventually come full circle. As Mr. Radcliff writes, “We live in a global environment, which is a closed system. Environmental contamination affects us all.” To see tables of drinking water standards around the world, view this article in its entirety on the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse’s Web site at

Drinking water standards vary around the world, ranging from complex to simple. And water quality runs the gamut from pristine to appalling. With such broad parameters, you might expect a wide range of rules. However, if you take a look, you can clearly see that international drinking water standards are divided into two categories:
1. developed nations that have very high standards of water quality, and
2. the underdeveloped world that continues to struggle with bacterial and chemical contamination.

Numerous reports convey the drinking water and sanitation problems that the developing world faces. The World Health Organization (WHO) set standards that these countries can use to begin their own safe drinking water programs. However, WHO acknowledges that most developing nations will not be able to meet these drinking water standards. To assist developing nations that may not be able to afford modern treatment technologies, WHO suggests these countries use the standards as guidelines to provide direction about simple filtration and disinfection.

The Developed World Makes the Rules
To better understand how the world’s drinking water standards compare with those of the U.S., I investigated drinking water regulations in Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), Germany, and the United Kingdom (U.K.) as well as those that WHO recommends.

Photo Caption: Australia leads the world when it comes to setting standards for the greatest number of pesticides. This country has set standards for 100 pesticides that are not currently regulated in the U.S. Here, some aboriginal men get a drink of water during a break.

In the U.S., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting drinking water standards. Currently in the U.S., standards exist for inorganic (IOCs), volatile organic (VOCs), semi-volatile organic (SOCs), disinfection byproducts, microbials, and radiological contaminants. However, not all countries follow the U.S. standards. A review of other developed nations’ standards indicates that, while some countries list far more contaminants for possible monitoring, others consider regulation for some U.S. contaminants unnecessary.

Regulated Primary Inorganic Contaminants

Comparison of Primary Inorganic Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

No country besides the U.S. has standards for asbestos, beryllium, or thallium. A review of the actual regulatory limits shows that the U.K. has the least stringent standards as compared with the U.S. In the U.K., four contaminants have higher limits. Germany allows higher limits for three contaminants WHO is the only organization without higher regulatory limits for any other contaminants.

Regulated Volatile Organic Compounds
Comparison of Primary Volatile Organic Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

The countries surveyed take a very different approach to regulating volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds than does EPA.
Australia’s standards are the most similar to our country.; however, most of the country’s standards are higher. WHO standards are similar in number to the U.S. But, their limits are higher than those accepted in the U.S. for 12 of 19 contaminants. The U.K. and Germany take the greatest deviation from the U.S. approach.

Germany regulates the sum of six individual VOCs at 10 micrograms per liter (ug/L) and a maximum of 100 ug/L for the sum of all others detected. The U.K. only regulates three individual VOCs, but also requires an inorganics type measurement for dissolved or emulsified hyrdrocarbons (measured as total petroleum hydrocarbons extracted in petroleum ether). The standards for semi-volatile organic compounds are even more variable.

Regulated Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SOCs)

Comparison of Primary Semi-Volatile Organic Pesticide Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

We can find the greatest variation in the SOC standards. The potential list of contaminants includes pesticides, polychlorinated and polybrominated biphenyls (PCBs and PBBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, phenols, dioxin, and water treatment chemicals, such as acrylamide and epichlorohydrin.


Australia leads the world when it comes to setting standards for the greatest number of pesticides. This country has set standards for 100 pesticides that are not currently regulated in the U.S. Despite the standards, Australia doesn’t require monitoring for these contaminants unless the water system has reason to believe that they may be present in their watershed. But, Australia can boast that it has set much more stringent standards for 16 of its 17 standards that are comparable to those of the U.S.

Of all the countries or organizations surveyed, the EU, Germany, and the U.K have the most stringent pesticide standards. Rather than attempt to regulate each individual pesticide and its metabolites, these countries set a maximum limit of 0.1 ug/L for any individual pesticide or metabolite as well as a maximum total pesticide concentration of 0.5 ug/L. If these same standards were required in the U.S., many water suppliers would be forced to adopt granular activated carbon or membrane technology, thus significantly increasing the cost of water production.

Non-Pesticide SOCs

Comparison of Primary Semi-Volatile Organic Non-Pesticide Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

Significant differences also exist in the non-pesticide SOCs regulated by country. Phenols, which are part of the “Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule” in the U.S., are regulated in Australia and Canada. WHO also established guidelines for this contaminant class. The scope of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) is also more elaborate in the EU. Unlike pesticides, most of the contaminants are not regulated individually but rather the sum of the contaminant concentrations cannot exceed the specified limits.
Interestingly, Germany has also set standards for polybrominated biphenyls and terphenyls. The brominated analogs to chlorinated contaminants can be far more toxic. Polybrominated biphenyls have been implicated as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the normal endocrine function within humans and animals. Germany has been a leader in research into endocrine disruptors, and even acknowledges them in their drinking water laws, but has not set any standards beyond PBBs. As more is learned about endocrine disrupting compounds, it is likely that standards will be developed for brominated compounds and numerous other classes of SOCs, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

Radiological Contaminants
Comparison of Radiological Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

In the U.S., increased testing is based on results of gross alpha and gross beta testing. If the standard is exceeded, systems must then test for radium 226 and 228. Based on these results, additional monitoring may be necessary, and water suppliers may need to pursue the primary list of radionuclides. Radiological standards for the U.K. and Germany were not found in the sources.

Microbial Contaminants
Comparison of Primary Microbial Drinking Water Standards by Country or Organization

Each country also has significant differences among microbial monitoring requirements. Australia has put far more extensive monitoring suggestions in their guidelines than other countries. Additionally, Australia is one of the leading investigators of algal toxins. While no standards are currently in place, specifications for cyanobacteria, or blue green algae do exist. Based on these counts, monitoring for toxins may be suggested. Currently, cyanobacteria and algal toxins are on EPA’s contaminant candidate list (CCL), which is the source for future drinking water regulations in the U.S.

Perhaps the U.K. standards present the most interesting requirement. The U.K. requires continuous monitoring of the entry point to the distribution system for Cryptosporidium. In the U.S., as of the end of the Information Collection Rule, the country has not enacted a requirement for routine Cryptosporidium monitoring. The testing cost for Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia is expensive, and the current detection method may indicate false positive or negative results. The daily monitoring requirement at each entry point clearly places a heavy cost burden on water suppliers. The benefits of such monitoring may not be worth the costs.

Costs Versus Benefits
Completion of sample analysis requires considerable time. Processing and interpretation of the results can be accomplished within a day. Interpreting the results requires a powerful microscope and is very tiring to the analyst. In addition, contaminant misidentification can be a concern. Assuming that a sample was presumed positive for Cryptosporidium, by the time the water supplier was informed of the results, the water would have been in the distribution system and available to the public. Issuing a boil water notice may eliminate some illness, but there would still be some portion of the population that could be affected. Thus, timing of getting the data to the water supplier is an issue.

Additionally, the test does not indicate the viability of the Cryptosporidium, so the positive result may not reflect a real danger. Another issue that should be considered is the susceptibility of individuals to infection. Some individuals may be able to tolerate low levels of Cryptosporidium without becoming ill. Guidelines for issuing boil water notices would need to be developed to make sure that the water supplier didn’t “cry wolf” and erode the confidence of the consumers. The large number of negative samples and the potential for false positive results due to limitations in the method probably do not justify the large expense. A monitoring program is desirable to catch potential contamination, but the monitoring should probably be based on changes in water quality in the source water or changes in the efficacy of the treatment process.

Photo Caption: Germany has been a leader in research into endocrine disruptors and even acknowledges them in their drinking water laws. This waterfall cascades through the town of Saarburg, Germany.

Many Differences Remain
Significant variations exist among developed countries’ drinking water regulations. Other developed nations do not regulate as many contaminants as the U.S. and regulatory limits also vary. Australia developed and codified standards for numerous pesticides but does not require that water systems monitor for them. Australia also has done significant work on algal toxins and has a standard for cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. Canada is reviewing virus data. Depending on the nature of this review, Canada may develop individual standards, which could serve as a basis for U.S. standards.

Germany specifically references endocrine disruptors in their drinking water regulation and has been very active in research related to this diverse set of contaminants. Germany also lists standards for polybrominated biphenyls. Because of their environmental persistance and toxicity, brominated contaminants, especially brominated disinfection byproducts, will likely be among future regulated contaminants in the U.S.

The U.K. requires daily Cryptosporidium monitoring at each entry point to the distribution system. While this approach provides significant data regarding the treatment process’s efficacy, the cost of the testing and the uncertainties of the data, which arise because the testing method is fallible, may outweigh the benefits.

As a result of stringent drinking water standards, people in the developed world enjoy a very high standard of water quality, but much work still needs to be done to optimize treatments that remove disinfection byproducts and endocrine disrupting compounds. In contrast, perhaps the most significant issue among international drinking water standards is the plight of developing nations. Much of the world’s population still live with a lack of access to purified drinking water or adequate sanitation.

WHO has guidance manuals that describe inexpensive approaches to basic-water purification. As developed nations endeavor to attain higher water-quality standards, it is critical to work toward providing clean water for everyone. We live in a global environment, which is a closed system. Environmental contamination affects us all. It is incumbent on every nation to work together to supply greater access to clean drinking water, and to strengthen regulations that will provide superior water quality for the world.


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