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The EPA Water Quality Standards


*Reviewed by Ken Christopher, Senior Vice President at Rayne Dealership Corporation

Between the free-flowing water from our faucets, the Hydro Flask we keep perpetually filled on our desks, and the vast selection of bottled water we encounter every time we go to the market, it may seem like clean, safe water is as abundant as air.

But climate change and the Flint, Michigan water crisis of 2014 have exposed and underscored the fact that water is a precious resource—and that not all water is created equal.1

EPA water quality standards were put into place to combat this, even if recent events have revealed the challenges in enforcing it. What are these standards, though? And why must they be adhered to? Read on as we unpack it for you.

What is the EPA?

We come across “EPA” frequently but some of us may have only a vague understanding of it.

EPA is the acronym for the Environmental Protection Agency, an independent agency of the U.S. federal government that’s responsible for overseeing and shielding environmental and human health.2 Established by President Nixon in the 1970s, one of its primary obligations is ensuring that we have clean land, air, and water.

What are the EPA Water Quality Standards?

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment of 1972, which is more commonly known as the Clean Water Act of 1972, was established by Congress in response to growing, country-wide concerns about the health of water across the States.3 Created to mitigate the contamination of water and stop water pollution, it’s faced several amendments over the decades but the core of its mission remains the same: To help ensure the water we drink and use is safe.

To this end, the EPA assesses water for a variety of contaminants.

Contaminant Classifications

The EPA tests and monitors for the presence of substances that could be detrimental to environmental and/or human health.4 The agency has two classifications for analyzing and regulating the safety and aesthetics of water received or used by humans:

  • National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) – This monitors the maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, of substances that cause human health problems.
  • National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR) – This regulates water in terms of its aesthetics, such as smell, taste, and appearance. Unlike the first, these standards are not enforced by law, and most of us know not to drink water that appears cloudy or has a foul smell. Nonetheless, residences and businesses should adhere to the EPA’s secondary drinking water regulations. For the purpose of this post, though, we’ll focus on the first set of regulations.

The EPA has listed 90 contaminants that have been shown to pose a threat to human health, potentially causing gastrointestinal issues, an increased risk for cancer, anemia, kidney, liver, and nervous system complications, and more, an issue we’ll look at more in-depth in just a moment.

These contaminants are broken down into the following 6 categories.

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#1 Micro-organisms

Micro-organisms such as e. Coli, pathogens, and bacteria can have a grave impact on human health; e. Coli infects roughly 73,000 people per year.5> These parasites, bacteria, and viruses can also be transported from humans and animals into and from bodies of water.

#2 Disinfectants

The EPA also assesses water supply for the presence of disinfectants, which include chloramines, chlorine, and chlorine dioxide. That said, some of these disinfectants are also useful in safeguarding the cleanliness of water—just think of the chlorine found in public and private pools. This disinfectant, among others, can be useful in preventing illnesses.

However, there are permitted and prohibited types and levels of disinfectants as set by the EPA, and those that are allowed must comply with the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels (MCLs).6

#3 Disinfection Byproducts (DBPS)

Chloroform, chlorite, and bromate are three of the most commonly known disinfection byproducts. Ultimately, unsafe levels of these byproducts can be carcinogenic.

#4 Inorganic Chemicals

Some inorganic chemicals found in water are toxins and pollutants, such as:

  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Nitrates
  • Nitrites

These chemicals can contaminate water supply and also cause health concerns.

Other inorganic chemicals, like fluoride, are believed to foster human health (just think of the fluoride our teeth require).

#5 Organic Chemicals

Tetrachloride and benzene are two organic chemicals that can contaminate water. These organic chemicals typically occur from the improper disposal of things like fuel, pesticides, and paint, or from run-off agricultural sites.

#6 Radionuclides

Man-made and natural radioactive mineral deposits can lead to the presence of radionuclides in water, which can elevate the risk of cancer. The most well-known radionuclide is uranium.

This may seem like a great deal to digest. However, this list highlights the importance of ensuring the water you consume and use—in your residence and business—is safe from detrimental levels of these contaminants.

What Are the Risks and Consequences of Not Adhering to EPA Water Quality Water Standards?

Whatever the designated uses for a water supply is, it’s essential to adhere to water quality criteria and regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency, especially drinking water quality. The water crisis in Flint highlighted the fallibility of water, but it wasn’t an isolated problem.

Between 1982 and 2018, one in four U.S. residents used water that was either contaminated, undertested, or untested.7 Unclean water impacts nearly every region of the country, but rural and economically fragile communities are disproportionately affected. The affordability of water, coupled with faulty infrastructure, has turned unsafe water into one of our largest public health concerns today.8

Curious as to why are water quality standards important? Here are some of the biggest consequences of failing to follow EPA water quality standards.

Human Health

Unsafe, contaminated water that’s consumed and/or used for bathing, brushing your teeth, and cooking can have dire effects on human health. One of the biggest concerns is that contaminated water may increase the risk for lead exposure.

Ongoing exposure to lead, as we saw in Flint, can lead to a host of health complications. And while all humans are susceptible to experiencing the effects of lead exposure, children, the elderly, and pregnant women are impacted the most.

Some of the most pressing health concerns of contaminated water include:9

  • Behavioral and cognitive problems – Children and young adults exposed to lead may experience behavioral problems such as ADHD and face cognitive challenges that could affect their academic performance and IQ levels.
  • Growth challenges – The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences reports that lead exposure may lead to later-onset puberty and impaired growth.
  • Hypertension – Hypertension, or high blood pressure, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and may be life-threatening.10
  • Legionnaires Disease – This form of pneumonia made the headlines when it was found that 10 people of Flint died of the bacterial disease after being exposed to it through contaminated water.
  • Gastrointestinal issues – Bacteria such as Giardia can cause acute and chronic gastrointestinal issues and other health conditions and diseases, including cholera. An estimated 16 million cases of gastrointestinal distress caused by community water systems in the U.S. occur each year.11

Lead exposure can also cause fertility issues, kidney problems, and chronic conditions such as cancer.

Violations and Penalties

Businesses that fail to comply with the standards set forth by the Clean Water Act of 1972 may encounter:12

  • Closure of the business
  • Fines of up to $16,000 per day with a maximum of $187,500 per violation
  • Financial judgements
  • Criminal charges

Typically, large businesses with a fair amount of discharge (or wastewater) potentially face these violations and penalties. Still, it’s important to be aware of the consequences one could face from knowingly or inadvertently discharging polluted water waste into the environment.

Moreover, it heightens the need to safeguard the purity of the water you consume and use.

Is Your Water Safe?

One of your biggest questions within this may be, is my water safe for use and consumption?

This depends on where your water is sourced. People who live in large cities and other urban areas are generally served by municipal water systems. The EPA aims to ensure that community water systems are compliant for 91% of the people they serve, which leaves room for error.11

Roughly 7-8% of community water systems are marked for a health-based violation per year.

If your water is sourced from your own well, it’s not monitored by the EPA and it’s your task to:

  • Assess it for contaminants
  • Ensure the well’s structural soundness
  • Install a filtration system

Find Peace of Mind with Rayne Water

EPA Water Quality Standards ensure the safety and cleanliness of water by assessing the level of contaminants and pollutants in recreational, agricultural, industrial, and drinking water. To preserve the health of all life, it’s critical that businesses and individuals comply with EPA standards and regularly monitor their water.

However, despite the EPA’s best efforts to ensure clean, safe water, the possibility of receiving contaminated water isn’t out of the question, which can potentially put you, your family, or your business at risk.

Don’t know how to test water quality? Fortunately, Rayne Water can offer a few solutions that may minimize water contamination and provide you and your family with clean drinking water that meets both commercial and industrial water quality requirements.

To help you manage residential and commercial water issues, we offer a range of products, from water filtration systems to reverse osmosis systems. In turn, we give you the gift of life: Pure, healthy water.



  1. NRDC. Flint water crisis: everything you need to know.
  2. EPA. Our mission and what we do.
  3. EPA. Introduction to water quality standards.
  4. EPA. National primary drinking water regulations.
  5. CDC. Epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreaks, United States, 1982–2002.
  6. EPA. Stage 1 disinfectants and disinfection byproducts rule: a quick reference guide.
  7. NRDC. Report: nearly one in four Americans’ drinking water comes from untested or contaminated systems.
  8. PLOS One. A burgeoning crisis? A nationwide assessment of the geography of water affordability in the United states.
  9. Healthline. Water quality and public health.
  10. Mayo Clinic. High blood pressure (hypertension)–symptoms and causes.
  11. PNAS. National trends in drinking water quality violations.
  12. GPO. Federal register.
  13. EPA. Enforcement under cwa section 404.

Expert Reviewer – Ken Christopher