Virginia Tech®home

Drinking water policy

We are interested in how environmental policy can control risks from drinking water, and in how risks from drinking water affect policy decisions.

Detection Limits

There is a perception in industry that environmental regulations are driven by improved analytical ability in the absence of evidence on cost-effectiveness or human health impacts. This has been termed variously “detection limit creep” or “vanishing zero". We delineated the historical role of analytical ability over the >100-year history of drinking water regulation in the United States in comparison with other factors such as costs and benefits. We found no evidence for regulation based solely on analytical capability and that analytical ability is generally advancing faster than environmental regulation.

Comparative Federalism

Federal countries like the United States and Canada differ in jurisdictional responsibilities for environmental regulation. The United States is highly centralized (the federal government has most responsibility) whereas Canada is highly decentralized (the provinces have most responsibility). We have studied the social and political forces that lead to one or the other configuration in the context of drinking water and ask which structure is most likely to be responsive to emerging environmental risks. Consistent with an inter-regional egalitarian tradition in Canada, environmental groups have tended to advocate for greater uniformity in drinking water standards. We find that this is not likely to be a health-protective change.


2015     RSD Calder & KA Schmitt. ‘Decentralised drinking water regulation: risks, benefits and the hunt for equality in the Canadian context’ in Int J Water, vol. 9 (2), pp. 178–93. 

2010     RSD Calder & KA Schmitt. ‘The Role of detection limits in drinking water regulation’ in Environ Sci Technol, vol. 44 (21), pp. 8008–14. 

2011     KA Schmitt & RSD Calder. ‘Keeping drinking water safe and economically sustainable: understanding the drivers of regulatory change to create anticipatory drinking water policy’ in Engineering Dimensions, Jan/Feb 2011, pp. 27–30. 




This work was carried out in the Systems Risk Lab at Concordia University, Canada, directed by Prof. Ketra Schmitt. We acknowledge funding from Concordia University and from NSERC.