By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD
The Water Quality Association (WQA) recently released results from its 2015 Study of Consumer’s Opinions and Perceptions Regarding Water Quality. Conducted by an independent, third-party market research firm, the survey provided important insights into consumer awareness of water quality issues and attitudes toward water quality concerns and treatment needs. Other surveys of environmental issues that concern Americans have also been published recently and collectively, they paint a clear picture that fears over water quality are prevalent in today’s society.
WQA survey results
The WQA survey polled 1,200 adults over the age of 18 living in private homes. The 2015 survey is one of five conducted over the last 11 years, providing a collection of data that could also be evaluated for changing trends over time. Participants were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone. Results of the survey showed a slight decrease in consumer confidence in household tap water quality over the previous 2013 survey, with 56 percent being concerned or very concerned versus 52 percent, respectively.(1) A key driver for consumers to purchase a POU filtration device was the issuance of a boil-water alert, as expressed by nearly half of all respondents. Boil-water alerts directly impacted 22 percent of exposed respondents.
Health contaminants remained a top issue relative to tap water quality, with 59 percent of respondents expressing concern and 41 percent stating that drinking water is not as safe as it should be. Odors and bad taste were other tap-water characteristics of concern. While 50 percent of respondents claimed to be somewhat or very knowledgeable about tap-water contaminants, only 37 percent reported receiving and reading their own municipal water quality report. Confidence that local municipalities were doing everything to ensure safe drinking water in the home was relatively high (62 percent) compared to confidence that federal laws were adequately protective (46 percent). Homes with water filtration devices comprised 43 percent of the overall respondents. While WQA reported this as a decrease over 2013 values (49 percent), the differences may not be significant over a larger sample size.
Yesterday fluoride, today…everything
Public opinion polls have historically shown a lack of consumer trust in drinking water quality and particularly in government entities responsible for the safety of the water supply. The Roper Center at Cornell University has compiled data on consumer confidence in drinking water since the 1970s. Prior to the 70s, fluoride contaminants were the primary concern in drinking water but these concerns shifted over the next four decades to include a wider range of pollutants. In a 1998 poll conducted by Gallup, CNN and USA Today, 30 percent of the public believed their own home tap water was unsafe to drink.(2) From the 1990s to today, there’s been an overall increase in Americans who are personally worried about water pollution.
Today, 55 percent are worried a great deal about drinking water, which far exceeded concerns about air pollution (38 percent) and even global warming (32 percent). Lower-income residents and African American populations tend to have lesser confidence in the quality of drinking water than other socioeconomic groups. Confidence in drinking water quality is highly positively correlated with trust in the government overall.
In 2014, only 32 percent of the population polled indicated that Americans trusted their state government to do right just about all of the time or most of the time.(2) That leaves 53 percent and 13 percent believing their state government does what is right only some of the time, respectively. Distrust for the government at the highest degree (none of the time) was at an all-time high in 2014 (13 percent) compared to two percent in 1990 and five percent in 2010.
Flint’s lasting legacy
Recent incidents such as the Flint, MI water quality and lead contamination crisis are likely to impact consumer confidence in those responsible for protecting drinking water. Whether or not Americans will see Flint as an isolated incident or an indication of personal risks leading to increased fears and government mistrust remains to be seen.(2)
According to a March Gallup poll, the percent of 1,019 adult Americans worried a great deal about pollutants in drinking water is up from 55 percent in 2015 (which was a decline over 2014 levels) to 61 percent in 2016. Concern about pollutants in rivers and lakes was also up nine percentage points, from 47 percent to 56 percent between 2015 and 2016, respectively. In Gallup’s 27-year environmental issue polling history, polluted water has consistently topped the list of American concerns.
Pollsters attribute recent increases, at least in part, to the emerging details of the Flint, MI crisis. Additional evidence that the Flint crisis continues to elevate concerns over unsafe water can be found in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll where Americans rank their top three health concerns as cancer, heroin abuse and drinking water.(3) (Each category garnered an excess of 35 percent of respondents ranking them as an extremely serious health problem. The Kaiser poll also found that 70 percent of Americans reported following the Flint crisis closely in April.)
Addressing consumer concerns
Consumers today are highly aware of the vulnerability of tap-water supplies and the availability of alternative solutions for improved water safety. Waning confidence in effective protection outside of the home has led to an increase in POU consumerism. There remains a significant need, however, to educate consumers on the primary contaminants of concern in drinking water and to ensure that POU devices adequately address those needs. Gaps in consumer understanding remain relative to POU device capabilities to remove a wide range of chemical and biological contaminants of concern, water sources and monitoring frequency in municipal versus private well water supplies, as well as filter replacement practices required for proper POU device maintenance. Given the wide range of chemical and biological contaminants reportedly of concern in the survey population and an expressed willingness to pay more for effective treatment, an understanding of various device capabilities may be lacking. Also lacking is an understanding among consumers of drinking water sources and monitoring oversight.
While under-sink, mounted POU device usage increased from 21 to 30 percent between 2013 and 2015, drinking water pitchers remain the most popular filtration systems purchased. In the WQA survey, 78 percent of respondents on a well water source believed that the well water is tested. Finally, only 71 percent of respondents reported changing refrigerator water filters regularly. Making sure consumers understand the importance of proper POU filter maintenance is a responsibility of the vendor and should be a foremost priority to convey.
Environmental surveys are useful to gain an understanding of consumers’ thoughts, opinions and perceptions. While some of the responses indicate a real concern, others are misguided perceptions. Both types of information aid in the development of products to address concerns and educational efforts to improve consumer understanding.
(1) Water Quality Association, National Study of Consumers’ Opinions & Perceptions Regarding Water Quality, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.wqa.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=pry1dPsPzLU%3d&portalid=0. [Accessed: 20-May-2016].
(2) Roper Center, Cornell University Water Crisis: Worry and a Lack of Trust–Roper Center, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://ropercenter.cornell.edu/worry-and-a-lack-of-trust-americans-and-drinking-water/. [Accessed: 20-May-2016].
(3) Delaney, A. “Americans Are As Worried About Bad Water As Heroin,” The Huffington Post, 2016. [Online]. Available: www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/drinking-water-poll_us_57239457e4b01a5ebde57fb8. [Accessed: 20-May-2016].
About the author
Dr. Kelly A. Reynolds is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. She holds a Master of Science Degree in public health (MSPH) from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Arizona. Reynolds is WC&P’s Public Health Editor and a former member of the Technical Review Committee. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org