Waterborne diseases kill more than 2 million people annually worldwide, according to WHO.

WHO Calls for Better Drinking Water Standards

The organization wants governments to address chemical contaminants and water safety to prevent waterborne diseases.

The World Health Organization issued revised drinking water guidelines July 4, saying governments should strengthen theirs to prevent often-fatal waterborne diseases. Some 2 million people die from these diseases annually.

"People drink unsafe or contaminated water, even though steps to prevent a major part of this contamination lie within our reach and means," according to WHO's announcement.

The revised Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality calls on governments to adopt a "Water Safety Planning" approach. "When implemented by individual countries this approach can yield significant and sustainable improvements in public health," the agency explained. "It requires a paradigm shift in drinking-water management for many countries. The Guidelines compel water suppliers to systematically assess the potential risk of contaminants to enter water, from the catchment to the consumer, take action based on their findings, and document the process."

"Countries have an opportunity to make substantial public health progress by setting and applying effective and appropriate standards for ensuring safe water," said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO's director for Public Health and Environment. "Shifting to a primary prevention approach is more effective, costs less, and gives us the flexibility to deal with new pressures threatening water safety, such as climate change, population growth, and urbanization."

The guidelines include recommendations on:

  • drinking water safety, including minimum procedures, specific guideline values, and how they should be used
  • microbial hazards
  • climate change
  • chemical contaminants in drinking water, including arsenic, fluoride, lead, and chemicals of public concern such as nitrate, selenium, uranium, and disinfection byproducts.

"If we look at the most recent waterborne disease outbreaks, both in developing and developed countries, it is clear that most of these could have been prevented through the proactive implementation of water safety plans," said Robert Bos, WHO's coordinator for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health.

The guidelines were launched at the Singapore International Water Week (July 4-8).

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