Content publisher

Back to opinion_CIE_20200618_agua_potable

Drinking water for all


Published in

Diario de Navarra

Luis Herrera Mesa

Full Professor emeritus of the University of Navarra

The European Citizens' Initiative "The Right to Water and Sanitation as a Human Right - Water is not a commercial good but a public good!", goal , aims to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation, which are intimately linked to the right to life and human dignity, as recognized in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. 

The European Directive (98/83/EC) sets standards for the quality of water intended for human consumption in order to protect health from pollution. In general, the Directive has been relatively well implemented by the different Member States. Indeed, a 2016 report from the European Environment Agency notes that more than 98.5% of tests and analyses performed on drinking water samples complied with EU standards. However, consumers are hesitant about tap water when they are in another EU Member State, and despite the aforementioned compliance rate, they are often reluctant to trust this water. It has been observed that the parametric values set out in the Directive are no longer appropriate, as they do not reflect scientific developments and changes in consumer behavior. Different stakeholders such as national and regional authorities, business associations and experts have insisted that the measures to be taken to address the new challenges and health risks related to drinking water should be adopted at EU level.

Therefore, the European Commission's (EC) new proposal responds to another successful European Citizens' Initiative result , "Right2Water". This initiative, which obtained more than 1.8 million signatures, concluded that the more than 20-year-old Directive adequately addresses its goal, but needs to be updated, in order to make it safe to drink tap water throughout the EU.

The EC's ongoing proposal aims to promote sustainable management of drinking water in a resource-efficient manner; help reduce the consumption of bottled water; adapt drinking water quality standards to the latest scientific data ; and adapt the legislative framework to respond to new challenges, such as the transition to a circularEconomics . The main elements of the proposal are the update of water quality standards; the addition of new substances to the list of criteria, and parameters that determine water safety; and the harmonization of standards for products at contact with drinking water.

By improving the information provided to citizens on the quality of drinking water in all regions of the EU, tap water is encouraged to be used in households and restaurants instead of bottled water, thereby reducing plastic waste. Member States will also be required to improve access for all citizens, especially for vulnerable and marginalized groups who currently have difficulty accessing safe drinking water. This includes the installation of equipment to facilitate access to drinking water in public spaces.

The parametric values contained in Directive 98/83/EC are generally based on the World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water. Given the impossibility - for space reasons of this article- of exhaustively detailing the new parametric values that will appear in the recast text of the new Directive, I will refer to chlorate (ClO3-) and chlorite (ClO2-) as by-products of drinking water disinfection with sodium hypochlorite (NaClO). A specific opinion of the European Food Safety Agency indicated that chlorate concentrations of 0.7 mg/l in drinking water (value proposed by WHO) could lead to overexposure to chlorate in infants and young children. The Commission's proposal for the reform of the Directive sets a stricter level of 0.25 mg/l for chlorate and chlorite, which is about three times lower than the level proposed by WHO.

The proposal of the Directive also considers that the precautionary principle justifies the inclusion in the alert list of three compounds - beta-estradiol, nonylphenol and bisphenol A - with a parametric health value of 2.5 μg/l, with endocrine disrupting properties, causing modifications of the thyroid function and the immune system. These three substances were chosen as reference letter because they are known to be present in surface water sources receiving treated sewage effluents and other discharges subject .

The alert list will enable the European Environment Agency to monitor, in a dynamic and flexible manner, new knowledge on these substances and their effects on human health.