Drinking water is a natural product. 70 percent of it is obtained from groundwater and well water, 13 percent from reservoirs and river water, and the remaining 17 percent originates from surface water, but is virtually the same as groundwater by virtue of soil passage and bank filtration. The taste of drinking water varies from one location to another, depending on the minerals that are dissolved in the water while it is underground. Drinking water should ideally have a pleasant taste and be clear, cool, colorless and odorless. In Germany, drinking water quality is governed by a law known as the Trinkwasserverordnung, as well as by other regulations – plus various guidelines, recommendations, and rules.
The bar is set extremely high when it comes to drinking water quality, for the simple reason that if pathogens contaminated the drinking water supply, countless persons could be infected; and so it is necessary to reduce this risk to practically zero. In some cases we could potentially be exposed to the substances in drinking water on a daily basis throughout our lives. This is why it’s so important to make sure that foreign substances are kept out of our drinking water as much as possible, and as a precaution also those substances that are not known to pose a health risk.
Anti-contamination safeguards are essential across the entire drinking water process chain comprising abstraction, purification, and distribution. The better our safeguards for this resource, the less the need for technical purification processes. Drinking water distribution systems that are built, maintained and operated in accordance with the applicable technical standards pose no risk of contamination resulting from substances derived from active ingredients or legionella growth. Hence the decisive factor for drinking water quality is management of the relevant systems. Accomplishing this is the responsibility of system operators, namely water utilities and building owners and operators. In Germany, drinking water quality is monitored by state and local public health officials.
The UBA’s role
The UBA’s mission in terms of drinking water is to continuously update and optimize the scientific bases and measures for a safe drinking water supply. We also assess the potential risks associated with drinking water abstraction, purification and distribution, and develop concepts aimed at avoiding such risks and if necessary managing them. In these tasks we are subject to oversight by the health ministry, which, along with us, benefits from the advice of the Trinkwasserkommission (Drinking water commission).
These various conceptualization tasks benefit greatly from our involvement in international drinking water initiatives. As a WHO Collaborating center for drinking-water hygiene research, we are involved in cutting-edge developments and apply German expertise to WHO evaluations. We also use the international treaty known as the Protocol on Water and Health as an information sharing platform, in particular to promote progress in the realm of German drinking water quality – including in every nook and cranny of our water supply system.
One of the key underpinnings of our water quality endeavors is the drinking water microbiology, toxicology, and distribution research that is conducted at our Bad Elster lab, and the drinking water resource, abstraction and purification research at our Berlin lab. Particularly salutary for this research is our capacity to simulate processes that unfold in waterbodies as well as underground purification processes. We do likewise for disinfection at our Marienfelde lab.