The history and value of NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 for drinking water systems

July 21, 2023
The National Sanitation Foundation vice president explains what NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 is, why it is important for water utilities to understand its history and why communication about the regulation is meaningful.

As an industry, we all play a pivotal role in ensuring that our water systems not only properly function and serve our communities, but that they do so safely. People outside of our industry are understandably becoming more aware and interested in the advancements happening in our water systems that affect their drinking water. This public attention creates a need for industry experts to effectively educate our communities about water systems and their functions.

As water infrastructure projects are implemented across the United States, the nation is curious about the safety of the materials being installed. It is important for the public to understand that the materials are required to meet NSF/ANSI/CAN 61: Drinking Water System Components – Health Effects. Industry leaders should also explain what the standard is, why it is important, and how it has evolved over time to ensure it reflects the latest science we have available.

What is NSF/ANSI/CAN 61?

The standard establishes "minimum health effects requirements for the contaminants that are indirectly imparted to drinking water from products, components, and materials used in drinking water systems."

Products that fall under the scope of standard NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 are quite expansive and include plumbing devices, pipes, mechanical devices, non-metallic potable water materials, protective barrier materials and process media. NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 is widely trusted and accepted across the globe and is required by 49 U.S. states and 11 Canadian provinces/territories. Products that carry the NSF mark prove that their claims have been verified to meet the standard requirement, helping provide peace of mind to end users.

NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 was developed in 1989 following a request from the U.S. EPA for a public health and safety program for drinking water products. With equal representation of industry experts, regulators, end users and manufacturers that make up the NSF Drinking Water Treatment Units (DWTU) Joint Committee, NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 was born.

Like all NSF standards, the NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 development process began with the Standards Committee, which includes equal representation from public health officials, industry and end users. It then moved on to the Public Health Council (PHC) where it passed with a majority vote of 90%. At this step, any comments and concerns were welcomed and adjudicated before the standard passed and was able to be published as an official standard.

How NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 has evolved

NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 has been a staple for drinking water product safety over the last 34 years and has undergone extensive and thorough evaluation to ensure that it meets the public health needs for our drinking water systems. Its inception was in 1984 when NSF and its consortium, made up of associations including the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the AWWA Research Foundation (AWWARF) and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), responded to a request for RFPs on standards development from EPA. NSF and its consortium were awarded the contract in 1985, and three years later, NSF 61 was published and became ANSI (American National Standards Institute) accredited shortly after in 1989.

An important part of NSF/ANSI/CAN 61’s history is that it was developed through an independent process, adding additional credibility to its use. NSF is accredited by the ANSI and SCC (Standards Council of Canada), which ensures the use of an open and consensus process for standards development. Its mission is to protect and improve global human and planet health.

NSF standards are continually reviewed to keep them up to date with the current technology and science that we have available. A recent example of NSF/ANSI/CAN 61’s evolution began in 2008 when Annex G was added to the standard to include lead content requirements. Annex G set requirements for certified products to meet a 0.25% lead content requirement. A few years later, in 2011, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) defined “lead free” to state that products must meet a weighted average lead content of 0.25 or less, to which NSF/ANSI 61 also required products to meet the new definition.

The continuous evaluation of lead content did not stop there. When the 2012 version of NSF/ANSI 61 was released, the lead extraction criteria outlined in Annex F was moved to the main body of the standard. This adjustment made it mandatory for certified products to comply with the updated lead requirements in order to earn certification. Following this adjustment, Annex G was retired from the standard in 2013 in preparation for the new implementation of the 0.25% weighted average lead content requirement that was officially implemented to all certified products in 2014.

After becoming a mainstay standard across the U.S., the global credibility and acceptance of NSF/ANSI continued and expanded to Canada. In 2019, the standard was published as a National Standard of Canada alongside its sister standard, NSF/ANSI 60, officially becoming NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 and NSF/ANSI/CAN 60. Currently, NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 is recognized in many countries as proof of safety of components in contact with drinking water.

The importance of industry standards

While these drinking water system standards are not often understood by those outside of our industry, we know they serve a vital role in protecting our health. Standards like NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 serve as an industry benchmark for rigorous requirements products must meet to obtain certification. Third-party certification to this standard provides manufacturers and end users peace of mind that the certified product does not cause any adverse health effects. This is monumental when it comes to something as important as our drinking water, considering that without third-party certification product claims are not verified. In fact, approximately 17% of products that are submitted for initial testing to NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 do not pass certification.

Standard development results in voluntary product testing, which is a rigorous testing process to ensure the product meets the standard it is being tested to. A process like this involves verifying the product formulation, conducting a technical review of the formulation, auditing the facility on-site, collecting samples and testing products, and conducting a final technical evaluation. The product formulation submission exemplifies the thorough process. Information including the identity of suppliers and trade names of formulary ingredients are required to be submitted and verified through NSF’s independent inspections of production facilities and extensive independent testing at NSF laboratories.

Standards raise the bar across the entire industry as they give products with certification a competitive advantage in the marketplace. This encourages other manufacturers to also test their products so they can earn certification and verify their claims to their customers by meeting the exhaustive requirements of the standards. The competitive market benefits the industry and in particular, end users, as the quality of products that builders and owners must choose from increases significantly when a quality check exists for what they are installing.

Behind the scenes

Many times, we take for granted that products will work according to manufacturer’s specifications and will be safe for use with drinking water. We may not realize the amount of testing and inspections that are conducted by third party certifiers to ensure products meet national standards. It is important for community members to understand that U.S. infrastructure project replacement materials must be certified to NSF/ANSI/CAN 61. Through learning about industry standards and how they play a role in our drinking water products, end users can better understand how and why they are being used.

About the Author

Dave Purkiss | Vice President of the Global Water Division, NSF

Dave Purkiss has over 35 years of experience in all aspects of water treatment and distribution systems. He leads NSF’s global water programs, including offices in the U.S., Belgium, China, India, Korea and the UK. These teams deliver certification programs that help ensure the quality and safety of products used in municipal water treatment, water distribution, residential drinking water treatment, plumbing, pools and spas, and wastewater treatment.