EPA Survey Examines Public Views on Water Supply

The use of bottled or filtered water by the American public is growing, in part because of concerns about safety, taste and odor associated with municipal drinking water...

Oct 1st, 2003

The use of bottled or filtered water by the American public is growing, in part because of concerns about safety, taste and odor associated with municipal drinking water, according to a recent national survey sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, according to the poll conducted by Gallup, only 56% of the surveyed respondents drink water straight from the tap. The rest use filtered or bottled water, leading EPA to conclude that it and its partners must work together to increase consumer trust in public water supplies.

Over 267 million Americans receive their drinking water from public water systems subject to EPA regulations.

In 1998, a survey sponsored by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) was conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide. The survey looked at consumer awareness of environmental issues. The Roper survey provided EPA with a benchmark for understanding the public's awareness and interest in drinking water issues.

EPA determined the timing was appropriate to conduct a follow up to the Roper survey to gauge public awareness of general drinking water issues. Water systems completed their fourth round of consumer confidence reports and the deadline for completion of state source water assessments is rapidly approaching.

EPA decided to assess public perception of these reports, and document trends and attitudes to help determine how to provide information to the public more effectively.

The agency commissioned the Gallup Organization to conduct a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 households during August and September of 2002.

The survey assessed:

1.) General drinking water consumer knowledge,
2.) Water use behavior,
3.) Public confidence with information sources, and
4.) Value placed on EPA's right-to-know efforts.

Findings from the survey demonstrated that Americans recognize the importance of receiving information on aspects of their drinking water and value being informed.

Consumer Knowledge

Gallup results reveal the American public has a basic understanding of their drinking water supply and source. The public understands the connection between the source of their water and their tap water, and the relationship of water suppliers to their tap water.

In order to measure consumer awareness of general drinking water issues, Gallup asked respondents if they could identify whether their household tap water came from a community water system or a private well.

94% (which equates to 264M individuals nationally) were able to identify whether they were on a community water system (CWS) or Private Well. Of those who knew they were on a CWS, 74.5% were able to name their water system provider and 71% were able to identify the source (i.e., lake, reservoir, aquifer, etc.).

Knowledge of water supply and source has remained fairly constant over the past four years. The Gallup results were similar to results obtained in the 1998 Roper Survey. Seven out of 10 Americans receiving their drinking water from service providers were able to identify their source (i.e., a lake, reservoir, aquifer, river, etc.) and name their water service provider.

Behavior, Trends

Gallup results indicate that a significant number of Americans drink tap water. However, a significant percentage have added some type of treatment or opted to purchase bottled water citing taste, odor, or health concerns as reasons for doing so.

Survey results show that:

• 82% (which equates to 231M Nationally) drink tap water.
• 56% *(157M) drink water straight from the tap.
• 37% *(104M) reported using a filtering or treatment device.
• 74% (208M) purchase and drink bottled water.
• 20% *(56M) drink bottled water exclusively

(* Please note: Percentages total 113%. The Gallup survey asked specific questions regarding water use. Percentages may overlap. For example people who drink tap water at home, may buy bottled water when they are out, or they may filter tap water at the office but not at home. The percentages in this case overlap.)

Gallup's finding that 37% of Americans opt to treat their tap water was slightly lower than the 41% obtained in a 2001 National Consumer Water Quality Survey conducted by the Water Quality Association (WQA) as reported in the AWWA Journal, August 2002. In 1998, Roper Survey results revealed that 32% of respondents use filtering or treatment devices.

Differences may be accounted for in sampling, methodology, margin of error, question wording, etc. Regardless, there has been an increase in the use of water filtering treatment devices in the past few years (a reported 38% in 1999, 32% in 1997, and 27% in 1995, according to the WQA survey).

When Gallup asked respondents why they boiled or filtered treated tap water, or purchased bottled water, the most frequent responses cited were health related issues (33.3%), followed by taste (27.7%) and convenience (17.5%). In the 1998 Roper Survey, the top reasons cited were taste, smell, or color (69%), stories in the news about pollution (49%), and for convenience (41%).

Bottled water use continues to rise. The increased use of bottled water may be a result of a consumer shift away from soft drinks and other beverages. While bottled water sales have been increasing over the past several years, soft drink sales have remained steady, and beer consumption has been dipping.

Trends show an average of 10% increase in bottled water sales each year from 1995 to 2000. National marketing research from 2002 showed that water bottlers' sales grew more than 13% in the last five years.

The average cost of bottled water is $.89 per gallon, $2.25 if delivered (Consumer Reports, January 2003). The average cost for tap water is less than a penny a gallon, indicating that cost for what is perceived as better quality water is not a factor in consumer choices.

Value of Consumer Confidence Reports

Results indicate customers are generally satisfied with the information they are receiving from their water companies and their local or state environmental offices.

Nationally, 29% (which equates to 81M Nationally) are reading their CCRs and 37% (104M) remember seeing their CCR. Only 7% of those who read their CCRs changed their tap water usage behavior after reading the report, 93% did not, indicating that consumers were not alarmed by the report.

Gallup's results are higher than data obtained from other surveys and research studies. The Water Quality Association reported in the 2001 National Consumer Water Quality Survey that less than 1 in 5 (17%) recalled receiving and reading CCRs. The length of time between when CCRs were first received and when surveys were administered (approximately 1-2 months for Gallup and 7 months for WQA) may account for the difference.

Gallup asked those respondents who had read their CCR a series of questions to gauge customer satisfaction. The majority indicated they were satisfied with various aspects of the report in terms of adequacy (88%), usefulness (82%), ease of understanding (79%), trustworthiness (77%), technical information (62%), and length (60%).

The format and content appear to meet respondent needs and expectations. Overall, the majority of respondents who read the report were satisfied with the report. Seventy-one percent responded they were confident or very confident about the quality and safety of their tap water. Nine out of 10 indicated they wanted to continue receiving some type of drinking water information.

A 16 page pdf file detailing the "Analysis and Findings of The Gallup Organization's Drinking Water Customer Satisfaction Survey" may be downloaded from the Internet at:
http://www.epa.gov/safewater/consumer/pdf/survey_gallup_customersatification2003.pdf

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