SAINT LEO, FL – After hearing about contaminated public drinking water supplies in Flint, Mich., and a handful of other communities, more than half of respondents in a national poll say they are very or somewhat concerned about the safety of their own hometown’s water supply, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://www.polls.saintleo.edu) found.
The new national survey also reveals that more than three-quarters of those polled were at least somewhat aware of the contamination that has occurred in various states and communities and was reported nationally in news media. The online poll contacted 1,001 adults nationally from June 10 through June 16. A parallel sample of 500 adults was polled during the same time period in Florida, the home state of Saint Leo University.
Results were markedly similar in the national and state surveys, revealing widespread unease about water supplies. Saint Leo science faculty commenters said that because of the provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (first passed in 1974 with subsequent updates) to protect drinking water and its public sources, for the most part, the United States provides safe drinking water from the tap—a benefit that many places in the world do not enjoy. Still, recent cases have raised fears, and the public appears to have serious questions about water resources.
The polling institute’s June survey included questions to gauge public perceptions of water quality, of the reliability of the infrastructure, and attitudes about regulation, among other issues.
The survey started asking about confidence in water supplies with these questions:
Water safety has been in the news lately. Contaminants such as lead has been found in public water supplies in Flint, Michigan; Sebring, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; Durham, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina, and many other communities. Prior to receiving this survey, how aware would you say you were about the water contamination issues? Would you say…
|Awareness level indicated
|U.S. – %
|Florida – %
|Combined: very aware and somewhat aware
|Not at all aware
|Combined: Somewhat unaware and not at all aware
How concerned would say you are about the safety of water in your hometown…
|Level of concern
|U.S. – %
|Florida – %
|Combined: Very and somewhat concerned
|Not at all concerned
|Combined: somewhat and not at all concerned
“Because of the egregious actions of a few elected officials in Flint, hundreds of thousands of people were affected,” commented Dr. Leo Ondrovic, associate professor at Saint Leo, where he is a member of the science faculty. “So it is no surprise that a majority of survey respondents are concerned about water quality issues. But the truth is that domestic water supplies in the U.S. are among the safest sources of clean water. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for drinking water, and empowers them to enforce water quality.” The EPA, the 50 states, tribal governments, and water systems are supposed to work together to ensure standards are met for more than 170,000 public systems.
Bottled Water Not a Sure Fix
What may seem to consumers as an obvious alternative to tap water is not necessarily a solution, cautioned Dr. Laura Altfeld, another Saint Leo scientist and associate professor. She worries that some people think bottled water is safer than tap water in the United States—but people should not make this assumption, she said. Bottled water is regulated less frequently, and not uniformly, she noted. Oversight involves the Food Drug Administration, and not the EPA, she added.
“Bottled water also presents an additional cost to the consumer, may consist merely of tap water anyway—and therefore be subject to any hazards consumers want to avoid by purchasing bottled water—and can present new hazards, such as chemical contaminants that may leach from the bottle and into the water,” the biologist continued.
Underlying Water Resource Questions
The polling institute survey probed people’s attitudes about rights to supplies of water and about resource management. The survey presented respondents with a number of statements, and asked them to indicate whether they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed.
Respondents revealed agreement—strongly agreed or somewhat agreed—to the following statements. They are listed here in descending order (of the entire U.S. base).
|U.S. – % agreeing, strongly & somewhat
|Florida – % percentage agreeing, strongly & somewhat
|Clean, consumable water is a human right
|I’m willing to pay more in taxes to ensure safe, consumable water supplies
|We face an impending water crisis in the United States
|We have increased water conservation measures over the past year such as reduced watering
|The federal government should force states to share their supplies of water with other states
|Our household has reduced reliance on the public water supply out of fear for safety
Altfeld said that it makes sense to her that most people consider water a right: “None of us can survive without water.” In 2010, the United Nations decided to make an explicit declaration of the human right to access to safe drinking water, noting water has become a more important worldwide issue.
Within the last year, Ondrovic noted, Pope Francis stressed (using italics) in his written teaching on care of the environment (Laudato Sí) that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.” Ondrovic wondered if the pontiff’s influence can also be credited to some degree for the broad agreement shown among the Saint Leo poll respondents.
With that said, more than six in 10 Americans see an impending water crisis. Notably, residents of rainy Florida registered concern at levels as high as the national sample about water resources.
Altfeld attributed that to manmade stresses on the peninsula. “Even though Florida receives abundant freshwater in the form of rainfall relative to some other states,” Altfeld said, “it is not immune to problems associated with freshwater quality and quantity limitation. We Floridians put enormous pressure on our aquifer as consequences of intense development, agriculture, and industry. We also have difficulty preserving natural landscapes, particularly freshwater wetlands, which act, in part, to recharge our aquifer.”
And visible stresses on freshwater drinking water sources are visible in other parts of the country, as well. For instance, Ondrovic described the consequences pollution is having for water suppliers in the Midwest, where algae blooms have appeared. “The toxic algae contaminating lakes in Ohio can be linked to water pollution issues,” Ondrovic said. “Algae blooms are usually promoted by pollution in the form of nutrient runoff from agricultural and commercial activities. The algae is not only very difficult to physically remove, but it is also very difficult to deal with the toxins.”
And in another case, he added, “Water contamination in North Carolina was found to be related to a leaking coal ash pit. Both are examples of why our water sources are at risk and growing scarce.”
Ondrovic added that he found it “shocking” that more people were willing to pay increased taxes to ensure safe consumable water than reported using conservation measures. It could not be determined from the survey results though, to what degree conservation measures, such as reduced lawn watering, are voluntary, given that it is common for communities to enforce mandatory reductions.
Altfeld said that overall, she found hope in the survey results “in that they reveal substantial public awareness and concerns over water as an invaluable, and nonnegotiable, resource. I hope we will all remember to continue to ask good questions of and demand transparency from our resources managers. In addition, we need to be willing, and to remain willing, to make changes in how we think about and use water to contribute to vigilant stewardship of this critical resource.”
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More About Our Research
METHODOLOGY: One poll sampled opinions of 1,001 adults nationally between June 10 and June 16, using an online survey instrument. The poll has a +/- 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level on a composite basis.
The institute also sampled a parallel population of 500 adult residents in Florida, using the same online survey instrument. The results from these questions have a +/- 4.5 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level on a composite basis.
The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 dollar deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.
The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can be found here: http://polls.saintleo.edu. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.
About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo University (www.saintleo.edu) is a regionally accredited, liberal-arts-based institution known for an inclusive Catholic heritage, enduring values, and a capacity for innovation. The school was chartered in 1889 by Catholic Benedictine monks in rural Pasco County, FL, making Saint Leo the first Catholic college in the state. Saint Leo provides access to education to people of all faiths, emphasizing the Benedictine philosophy of balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit.
The university welcomes learners from all generations and backgrounds, from civilian occupations and the armed forces, and from across the country and more than 60 nations around the world. Saint Leo’s nearly 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students may elect to study at the beautiful University Campus in Florida, at more than 40 teaching locations in seven states, or online from any location. The university’s degree programs range from the associate to the doctorate. Through these rich offerings, Saint Leo develops principled leaders for a challenging world.
Saint Leo University boasts nearly 80,000 alumni in all 50 states, Washington, DC, five U.S. territories, and 72 countries.