How the Updated EU Drinking Water Directive is Impacting Consumers and Industry Professionals

27. March 2024 | 14 min read

To further increase drinking water safety, the European Commission has updated the EU Drinking Water Directive to limit the amount of harmful substances, such as lead, found in drinking water. The revised Directive was implemented in 2021 and Member States were given two years to transpose it into local legislation. 

A key change in the updated Directive is the reduction of the maximum lead limit for drinking water from 10 μg/L to 5 μg/L. Accordingly, questions are being asked about lead-leaching alloys in water distribution lines and fittings, with growing interest in the availability and viability of lead-free alternative materials.

To discuss these changes, we sat down with Helmut Richter — Biochemist, Head of Technical Administration and former Head of Quality at the TGM (State Research Institute), member of the Presidential Council at Austrian Standards, and Authorized Consultant. 

For the past two years, Richter has been working in the Subgroup Material of the Drinking Water Directive Expert Group, representing Austrian interests as a national delegate. The subgroup was responsible for drafting the Implementing and Delegating Acts for Article 11 of the Drinking Water Directive, which are expected to be enforced in 2024. Article 11 concerns the minimum hygiene standards required for materials that come into contact with drinking water, and the subgroup aimed to standardize material suitability for this purpose in Europe. 

We asked Mr. Richter to shed some light on the new Directive and the impact it will have on both consumers and water industry professionals.  

How the Updated EU Drinking Water Directive is Impacting Consumers and Industry Professionals

An Interview with Helmut Richter  

How will the updated EU Drinking Water Directive be implemented and enforced across different Member States? 

The Drinking Water Directive will be implemented through the national legislation of each Member State. At this level, implementation will vary because the requirements of each stakeholder will be different at different stages. Regardless, countries cannot deviate from the Directive; they can only make certain requirements more stringent if technically and legally justified. 

The end goal is the same for everyone: Drinking water, at the tapping point, must meet the new chemical requirements.  

However, the legal situation is complicated. Although the law must be implemented nationally and will therefore vary significantly — for example, In Austria, the Directive has shifted from construction law to food law — the Implementing and Delegating Acts are intended to function as European law and are directly legally binding in every Member State. This paradox poses a legal conundrum that remains unresolved. The European Commission is currently working on guidelines for implementation, so we're awaiting further clarification.  


Will the legislation apply to existing buildings and water infrastructure, or just new builds? 

The legislation applies primarily to new builds but does impose certain standards on existing buildings, especially if they don't meet the maximum lead limit values. This is particularly relevant for older structures with, for example, lead piping. If such installations persistently exceed limit values, the building owner will need to find a way to comply or potentially face legal consequences.  


How does the new Directive impact investors, planners, designers and plumbers?  

The impact will vary. Investors, generally, will remain indifferent — they invest in compliant projects and expect them to meet legal requirements. In this regard, they’ll enjoy greater confidence in drinking water products that have been tested and certified as compliant with the Directive. 

Planners and designers, however, need to consider material suitability when selecting products and systems for their projects. Under the revised Directive, product materials used in water distribution systems will need to comply with new testing requirements. Planners and designers will, therefore, have to be forward-thinking and select products that not only comply with current regulations but future regulations, too. Installing products that have to be removed at a later date could make them liable for the costs of replacement. 

Plumbers and installers, on the other hand, can only work with what manufacturers provide. Within the EU, there will be increasing pressure on manufacturers to bring compliant lead-free products to market. However, challenges may arise if products come from places with different standards, like Asia, particularly as it is as yet unclear who will regulate them. If manufacturers fail to provide clear product information or use non-compliant materials, plumbers could be exposed to using products that fail to meet the requirements of the Directive.  


What are the benefits of the legislation for consumers?  

Overall, the aim of the Directive is to improve water safety and standardization across Member States. The extent to which consumers notice this will vary slightly depending on how water is sourced and consumed locally. In Germany and Austria, for example, consumers might not notice many changes — except for potentially higher product prices due to increased testing costs or more expensive material alternatives.  

However, overall, the legislation aims to increase health and safety standards everywhere, despite varying consumption habits across Europe. 


Who will bear the responsibility for ensuring drinking water quality meets the requirements of the Directive?  

There are two responsible parties at different points in the supply chain. The water supplier is responsible from source to transfer point (the point at which water enters the building). From transfer point to tap, the building owner assumes responsibility.  

With regard to lead, levels are generally negligible from the water supplier's side. But inside buildings, especially in older structures, lead-containing materials can certainly affect water quality. Therefore, investors and owners will want to clarify that plumbers are working with compliant products and materials when installing their building’s water distribution system. 


How will the transition to lead-free plumbing materials impact the cost of building and construction projects? 

Lead-free plumbing materials are more expensive to manufacture, which will inevitably drive up prices. Beyond this, a greater need for third-party testing will also increase costs.  

All stakeholders, from testing institutes to manufacturers, will need to develop transition programs. A lot of work is going to be required by all parties to ensure that the market has access to compliant products.  


Who will be responsible for the increased testing requirements? 

This will fall on manufacturers and suppliers. Where previously manufacturers could simply use approved materials, now the finished products will have to be tested and certified too.   

This amplifies the need for industry professionals to partner with competent manufacturers. It’s no longer sufficient for a manufacturer to claim they are working with compliant materials; they need to be competent enough to ensure their production processes don’t impact material quality and make the resulting products incompliant.  

In the coming years, planners and installers will be required to only use products that have the necessary quality assurances. Therefore, the impetus is on manufacturers to ensure their products comply.  

This is where product labeling and certifications come into play. These aren't one-time tests; they involve ongoing monitoring by an independent third party. This ensures the production process meets the certified standards, and industry professionals can look for these labels as a mark of quality. If a product has a certification label, that's a good indicator for installers and planners that it meets the necessary criteria. 


What innovations in the materials and technologies of drinking water systems do you envisage as a result of the Directive?  

There have already been a number of innovations in lead-free metals for water distribution products. Lead-free brass has been replacing red brass for approximately three years already, and some manufacturers are already offering completely lead-free systems. However, in replacing leaded materials, we must be mindful that we are not introducing other, as yet unknown, dangerous substances.  

I’m particularly excited for innovations and developments in plastics. Legislation for plastics is already strict, but a huge amount of innovation will still be required to ensure they fulfill the requirements. For example, PPSU is a dream lead-free material for water distribution products, but even this will face more challenging testing under the new Directive.   

There is growing pressure on manufactures to produce these lead-free alternatives, on mass, as soon as possible. Many lead-free products that are currently being marketed are not yet available in large quantities. Production of these products will need to increase dramatically during the transition period to ensure planners and installers have plenty of options once leaded products are prohibited. 


What is the importance of education and communication in the transition to lead-free materials?

Education is vital. We need to communicate the features and benefits of lead-free materials effectively, whether through specialized literature or lectures, while also ensuring industry professionals have adequate information on the timelines of the Directive.  

At this relatively early stage in the process, manufactures and suppliers must strive to inform industry professionals about the upcoming changes and assure them that they are working to adapt their portfolios to meet the needs of the new quality standards.  


What advice do you have for water industry professionals preparing for the changes outlined in the recast EU Drinking Water Directive? How can they proactively embrace these changes to stay competitive and compliant? 

To prepare for the new EU Drinking Water Directive, professionals should be proactive in assessing whether the products and materials they use will meet the new standards. Being proactive also means participating in industry committees and staying informed, so you're at the forefront of changes, not just reacting to them. This will not only make you more competitive but also help manage costs effectively during the transition. 

How the Updated EU Drinking Water Directive is Impacting Consumers and Industry Professionals

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead 

The European Union’s updated Drinking Water Directive imposes a set of challenging requirements that warrant immediate attention. Product and material suitability have moved to the forefront, making it imperative for professionals to stay updated on evolving standards.

Navigating these changes will be difficult, especially in light of additional burdens like increased testing costs and potential legal quandaries. Yet, those who proactively engage with the new guidelines, participate in industry dialogues and invest in education and training will likely find themselves better positioned to excel in this evolving landscape.

As Mr. Richter stated, the effects of these changes will vary across the board, but the overall aim remains universal: To enhance the quality and safety of drinking water throughout Europe. 

How the Updated EU Drinking Water Directive is Impacting Consumers and Industry Professionals

About Helmut Richter 

Helmut Richter started his career as a biochemist, joining the Testing Institute for Plastics Technology and Environmental Engineering at the TGM (State Research Institute) in 1985. By the late ‘80s, Richter became increasingly involved in evaluating the suitability of materials, particularly plastics, for drinking water systems. In 1990, Richter joined a national working group on this issue — rising to group Chairman by 2007. 

Richter was also involved in the DVGW working group and contributed to the development of DIN 50930-6, which deals with metallic materials in water systems.  

In 2021, Richter was appointed as a national delegate for the EU Drinking Water Directive Subgroup Material to represent Austrian interests. Richter has been actively participating in this subgroup for the past two years, addressing a variety of concerns related to the suitability of different materials for drinking water distribution systems.  

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