News | August 6, 1999

Survey: Americans Have Trust, Concern Over Tap Water Quality

On the eve of the release of important new tap water quality reports to tens of millions of Americans, a National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF)/Roper survey finds mixed feelings about tap water safety and a strong desire for more information.

Though the 55,000 water companies and utilities in the United States maintain the highest quality public drinking water in the world, Americans express considerable wariness toward the water that comes out of their tap each day, a nationwide survey reveals. According to the first-ever Report Card on Safe Drinking Water Attitudes, Knowledge and Behaviors, 91% of Americans report that they cook with tap water, and 75% report that they drink it. By themselves, these numbers indicate significant levels of public trust.

However, the survey also found that fully 65% of Americans are now taking steps to either treat the water they drink or are drinking bottled water in the home.

"The amount of use of bottled water in the home and water filters on the faucet has increased remarkably in the past few years," says Kevin Coyle, president of The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF), the organization that commissioned the survey. "Importantly the survey also shows some 65 million Americans (24%) report they do not drink tap water at all," said Coyle.

The NEETF/Roper Survey

The NEETF/Roper survey was conducted to measure public views on tap water in the months prior to release of new annual tap water quality reports—called Consumer Confidence Reports—that are now required by the National Safe Drinking Water Act. Anyone, in America who purchases water from a public drinking supply will receive the consumer reports in the mail according to the Safe Drinking Water Acts "right to know" provisions a policy, promoted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Congress.

"The Report Card provides a baseline of information to let us measure the impact the Consumer Confidence Reports will have on public views once they are sent to nearly 150 million people," said Coyle.

The survey found several reasons for people's reluctance to rely soley on tap water and use alternatives such as bottled water, home filtration and boiling. The main reason (69% of them) say they use these alternatives to raw tap water is taste and smell. Some 49%, however, noted that stories about pollution in the news influenced their decision.

Serious is the Concern and How Worried is the Public?

The answer seems to be "not very"—at least not yet. The survey found that 38% of Americans said they are indeed very concerned about their tap water while another 38% say they are moderately concerned. "Still," said Coyle, "regardless of vocalized concern we note that nine out of ten (91%) of Americans actually consume tap water either by drinking the water or cooking with it."

No matter what feeling people have toward their tap water, the survey also makes it clear they want more information than they are now getting. The survey found that people are very interested and that three quarters of Americans who get information about their tap water actually read it. And, four of ten say they are not satisfied with the amount of information they receive.

This shows that the new requirement to provide the Consumer Confidence Reports has widespread public support and clearly addresses a felt need. The degree of satisfaction with the information received can also be measured by future surveys.

Other report findings are:

  • While the media, government and, most importantly, water companies are currently the greatest sources of tap water information, they are considered somewhat less believable than environmental or other public interest groups and doctors or other health care providers.

  • Doctors and other health professionals are the most trusted source of drinking water information.

  • Parents with children at home, sensitive to their family's health, stand out as being more concerned (80%) than non-parents (74%) about the quality of their drinking water. Parents are also somewhat more inclined to seek advice on drinking water from health professionals, to filter or boil their water or to use bottled water in the home.

  • Women as a group share similar characteristics to parents as a group, and this too may be a reflection of a higher level of concern for health.

  • Bottled water drinkers also stand out as a group with their own characteristics. They are a younger group and have the highest expressed concern about safe drinking water of any group in the survey, at 82%.

  • Private well owners and apartment dwellers will not receive Consumer Confidence Reports but are still concerned about drinking water information indicating additional efforts are needed to meet their "right to know" needs.

  • Despite claims to the counter, there is evidence Americans do not know where their tap water comes from. The survey found, for example, 26% of Americans say they do not know even in general terms, where their water comes from.

Edited by Tracy Fabre