Water quality refers to the chemical, physical, biological, and radiological characteristics of water. It is a measure of the condition of water relative to the requirements of one or more biotic species and or to any human need or purpose. It is most frequently used by reference to a set of standards against which compliance can be assessed. The most common standards used to assess water quality relate to health of ecosystems, safety of human contact, and drinking water.
In the setting of standards, agencies make political and technical/scientific decisions about how the water will be used. In the case of natural water bodies, they also make some reasonable estimate of pristine conditions. Natural water bodies will vary in response to environmental conditions. Environmental scientists work to understand how these systems function, which in turn helps to identify the sources and fates of contaminants. Environmental lawyers and policymakers work to define legislation with the intention that water is maintained at an appropriate quality for its identified use.
The vast majority of surface water on the Earth is neither potable nor toxic. This remains true when seawater in the oceans (which is too salty to drink) is not counted. Another general perception of water quality is that of a simple property that tells whether water is polluted or not. In fact, water quality is a complex subject, in part because water is a complex medium intrinsically tied to the ecology of the Earth. Industrial and commercial activities (e.g. manufacturing, mining, construction, transport) are a major cause of water pollution as are runoff from agricultural areas, urban runoff and discharge of treated and untreated sewage.
The parameters for water quality are determined by the intended use. Work in the area of water quality tends to be focused on water that is treated for human consumption, industrial use, or in the environment.
Contaminants that may be in untreated water include microorganisms such as viruses, protozoa and bacteria; inorganic contaminants such as salts and metals; organic chemical contaminants from industrial processes and petroleum use; pesticides and herbicides; and radioactive contaminants. Water quality depends on the local geology and ecosystem, as well as human uses such as sewage dispersion, industrial pollution, use of water bodies as a heat sink, and overuse (which may lower the level of the water).
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the amounts of certain contaminants in tap water provided by US public water systems. The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes EPA to issue two types of standards:
primary standards regulate substances that potentially affect human health;
secondary standards prescribe aesthetic qualities, those that affect taste, odor, or appearance.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations establish limits for contaminants in bottled water that must provide the same protection for public health. Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of these contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk.
In urbanized areas around the world, water purification technology is used in municipal water systems to remove contaminants from the source water (surface water or groundwater) before it is distributed to homes, businesses, schools and other recipients. Water drawn directly from a stream, lake, or aquifer and that has no treatment will be of uncertain quality.