EPA Examines Public Views of Nonpoint Source Pollution

Almost all Americans live in a watershed, but very few of them know it. And while nonpoint source pollution is often the major polluting force in a watershed, most people have never heard of the term...

By James Laughlinh

Almost all Americans live in a watershed, but very few of them know it. And while nonpoint source pollution is often the major polluting force in a watershed, most people have never heard of the term "nonpoint source," according to a recent report developed for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA Nonpoint Source Management Partnership (NSMP) issued a contract to LISBOA Inc. to conduct eight focus groups around the county to learn about the attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and motivations of the general public toward nonpoint source pollution. The goal was to develop information that could be used to educate the public about this important environmental issue.

The study found that many people were already taking personal action to prevent nonpoint source pollution by properly disposing of oil, solvents, and other household chemicals. But they were unaware that these actions actually addressed the problem of nonpoint pollution.

Almost no participants were familiar with the term "nonpoint source pollution," and none could recall a public awareness campaign addressing the problem. Most said that the term seems nondescriptive and even confusing, and does not imply this is a problem caused primarily by public behavior.

Most agreed that EPA should consider using a different term to describe this type of pollution, and preferably one that clearly emphasized "personal responsibility" for the problem.

While some of the participants had heard the word "watershed," few knew the definition of a watershed or could name the one they lived in. Most did not see the importance of understanding their watershed in relation to the problem of nonpoint source pollution.

The participants said that EPA should publicize the problem using primarily television and radio, although print media such as billboards and bus/subway transit ads would be useful. They recommended specific programming such as morning drive time and talk radio, television new magazines and the evening weather report.

Respondents generally agreed that a public awareness campaign targeting pollution prevention should include messages communicating both personal responsibility for the problem and personal actions that will help reduce the problem.

Messages should clearly and dramatically demonstrate the immediate cause-and-effect relationship between personal polluting behaviors and resulting nonpoint source pollution. These messages, regardless of the medium used, should stimulate strong visual images and hard-hitting visceral reactions. "Gross is OK," according to the younger participants.

Messages should challenge the common misconception that industry is the major contributor to river pollution. The respondents were generally surprised to learn that most river pollution is caused by the public.

Messages linking nonpoint source pollution to adverse health consequences seem to be both attention-getting and motivating, particularly to younger respondents. They expressed concern over the relationship between nonpoint source pollution and food contamination. They also thought it important to link nonpoint source pollution to contamination of recreation areas.

What was surprising to some participants was that the local wastewater treatment plant could be doing a fine job of treating wastewater, yet their watershed could still suffer from excess pollution. That demonstrates the need for utilities to let the public know, "We are doing our job - now it's time to do yours!"

A copy of the report and supporting documents may be downloaded from the Internet at www.epa.gov/owow/nps/outreach/nps_fg_final_rpt.pdf

James Laughlin, Editor

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