Connecting Waterpeople

Study finds over half of people surveyed think tap water is unsafe

  • Study finds over half of people surveyed think tap water is unsafe

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More than 50 percent of thousands of Americans surveyed by the Environmental Working Group say their tap water is unsafe and 40 percent won’t or can’t drink it. But even with widespread concern over tap water quality, nearly half of those surveyed are uncertain about who is responsible for protecting it.

Hundreds of people told us, correctly, they think either the Environmental Protection Agency or their state is responsible for setting limits on pollutants to keep tap water safe, or that no regulations exist to keep chemicals out of what they drink. But many are unsure which federal agency oversees safeguarding our water.

Those are findings from a recent survey of 2,800 visitors to EWG’s landmark Tap Water Database, updated in late 2021. The database profiles the extent of drinking water pollution in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We conducted the survey, in late April, to identify out how much they know about their tap water.

The findings could help not only guide the development of the next Tap Water Database update, slated for 2024, but also identify ways to strengthen communities’ understanding of their drinking water – which could bolster calls for more steps to prevent water pollution.

“It’s great to understand people’s level of engagement on drinking water,” said EWG Senior Scientist Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D. “The survey answers will help shape how we write about and inform people about drinking water, because they give us a sense of who is searching for information on their water, who wants to learn, and why,” she said.

Although EWG ran the survey for only a few days, responses came from 2,800 people in about 1,580 unique ZIP codes in all 50 states and D.C., and even some from Canada and Mexico. Roughly 2,770 people answered the first three questions – whether they consider their home’s tap water safe, whether they drink it, and where it comes from – and 2,064 of the respondents went on to answer all seven questions we asked about tap water.

Just over 27 percent of people said they think it’s safe to drink water from the tap at home, with 51 percent saying it’s not. About one in five say they don’t know.

Only a quarter of respondents drink water straight from the tap, with almost 35 percent filtering water before drinking it. Forty percent refuse or are unable to consume it, and roughly the same percentage choose bottled water.

EWG recommends skipping bottled water – it is more expensive and there is less transparency about it, compared to what comes out of the tap.

“It’s interesting to see from the results that many people do not trust their drinking water quality,” said EWG Environmental Health Fellow Uloma Uche, Ph.D.

Many are uncertain about who sets legal limits for pollutants. Many say the federal government is in charge. Only about a third of respondents say, correctly, it’s the EPA’s duty. About 21 percent correctly identified their state’s role in setting limits on chemicals in tap water.

Roughly 4 percent believe there are no limits on chemicals in water, and they’re correct, since tap water can legally be polluted by over 160 unregulated contaminants.

But EWG scientists say what’s remarkable is that almost 46 percent of respondents are “not sure” who sets limits for pollutants, and over 20 percent of people surveyed aren’t sure of where the tap water in their home comes from.

“EWG would like to be a trusted tap water information provider,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s senior vice president for Science Investigations. “We want to create a community-level understanding of water as a resource for people, to build better engagement with the ultimate solution of pollution prevention and stricter regulation,” she said.

By educating more Americans about where their tap water comes from, how it’s regulated, and possible risks of drinking it without filtering, EWG can help foster a better understanding about the need for more action by states and for the federal government to do its part to keep harmful chemicals out of drinking water in every state, Naidenko said.

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