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Water Crisis: Worry and a Lack of Trust

Headlines about lead poisoning from contaminated water in Flint, Michigan ask how such a thing could happen here. Americans, however, may be somewhat less than surprised that U.S. drinking water could be contaminated. Polling shows that, though a crisis on the scale of Flint’s may be shocking, many Americans have long held concerns about drinking water – and low levels of trust in the government charged with protecting its safety.

Worried about water

Concerns about water quality emerged as a topic in polling in the 1970s; earlier polling on drinking water was more concerned with fluoridation than contamination. In the first question on the issue in the Roper archive, 32% of the public in a 1973 Gallup poll said that pollution of drinking water was a great threat to the safety of their own water supply, and 35% somewhat of a threat. Just 26% thought it wasn’t a threat at all.

Many Americans continued to display reservations about the quality of U.S. water supplies through the 1980s and 1990s. In a 1986 Roper poll, 29% of Americans said they had reason to believe their own water supply was contaminated.  Similarly, in a 1998 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 30% of the public said they thought their home tap water was unsafe to drink.

In Gallup polls since 1990, majorities of Americans have said that they personally worry about pollution of drinking water a great deal. The proportion saying they worry a great deal decreased from 2000 to 2015, while those saying they worried only a little or not at all increased to nearly a quarter. However, the 55% saying in 2015 that they worried a great deal about drinking water was higher than the proportions who said the same about air pollution (38%) or global warming (32%).

worry about drinking water pollution

Smaller though still substantial proportions give low ratings to their own drinking water.  In a 2011 CBS News/NYT poll, 64% rated the quality of the drinking water in their community as excellent or good, while a substantial minority of 35% said fair or poor. Low-income people report more water problems.  Among those with incomes under $30,000/year, nearly half (47%) said their community’s water was fair or poor, while just 24% of those with incomes over $70,000 said so. In a 2013 RWJF/NPR/Harvard poll of African Americans, 31% gave a C, D or F grade to the quality of drinking water in their community.

Lack of trust

A crisis that threatens public health, particularly the health of children, can have a major effect on the public’s trust in their elected officials. In the case of state government, perceptions about trustworthiness are already poor. In a November 2014 Pew poll, two-thirds of the public said they trusted their state government only some or none of the time. State government did perform slightly better than federal government in this poll, but the bar for trust in government is very low – three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the feds only some or none of the time.

Trust in state government  chart

Polling in Flint seems to indicate that Gov. Rick Snyder is feeling some fallout from what has become a nationwide scandal. But it is yet to be seen whether the American public will view the crisis in Flint as an isolated incident or  whether this crisis will tap into underlying fears about drinking water safety and build mistrust of state protection of  public health.

Date Published: February 3, 2016