By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD
How do you know if your drinking water is safe? For many, the answer to that question is if it tastes and smells good. Most drinking water contaminants of primary health concern, however, have no detectable taste or smell. US laws mandate that consumer’s have a right to know what contaminants have been found in municipal drinking water supplies. While there are documented information sources available, the content is difficult for the layperson to access and understand. Drinking water consumer advocacy groups are demanding a change.
It’s the law
Federal laws, including US EPA’s 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), have been implemented to mandate provision of annual water quality reports to consumers served by municipal water sources. This includes approximately 300 million customers served by over 57,000 utilities. According to the US Federal Register: “The 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act contain extensive provisions for consumer involvement and right-to-know that herald a new era of public participation in drinking water protection. These provisions are founded on the principle that consumers have a right to know what is in their drinking water and where it comes from before they turn on the tap. With the information provided in these provisions, consumers will be better able to make health decisions for themselves and their families.”1
The right-to-know provisions to the SDWA were positioned to raise consumer awareness with a goal to promote a dialog between consumers and utilities, help consumers—especially those with special health needs—make informed decisions regarding their drinking water and have access to information on regulated and unregulated water contaminants. Through annual reports, known as Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs), distributed via residential water bills, the public is informed of threats to the drinking water supply.2
Again, according to the Federal Register: “The provisions provide unprecedented opportunities for the public to participate in decisions related to the protection of their water supplies.”1 While this sounds like a good plan, the problem is that many people were not aware of the CCRs and others found them difficult to understand.3 One study found that only 37 percent of respondents remembered receiving their CCR and 29 percent indicated they had read the information. Interestingly, 71 percent reported they were confident or very confident about the quality and safety of their tap water.
Gaps in risk communication
There are many social and psychological influences on risk communication, but the basics of effective messaging is building trust with your target population and confidently providing clear, concise information. Relative to the CCRs, researchers have identified that current resources may not be readily accessible, easily located or engaging and understandable for the user. One review found that CCRs were written at the 11th- to 14th-grade level, despite recommendations from the National Institute of Health that public health communications be drafted at the 6th- or 7th-grade level.3
America’s Water Infrastructures Act of 2018 mandated changes in the CCRs with an October 2020 deadline for US EPA to 1) require utilities serving more than 10,000 people per year to provide CCRs at least twice per year; 2) provide an option for electronic delivery; 3) increase the “readability, clarity and understandability” and “accuracy” of the CCR information and 4) include specific information about corrosion-control efforts (this was the root cause of the lead problem in Flint, MI). These requirements were expected to improve risk communication regarding the quality and safety of the public’s water supply.
Unfortunately the October 2020 deadline was not met by US EPA and in January, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit against the government agency.4 The injunction stated that the complexity of CCRs “undermines their intended purpose and the public may not get timely, clear information about potential risks from contaminated drinking water” and that “By failing to issue the revised rules required by law, EPA is denying members of the public important information about health threats they may face from drinking water contamination.” The NRDC further raised the issue of impeding environmental justice, highlighting that communities of color and low-income communities experience disproportionate rates of drinking water violations, increased health burdens and greater adversity from the lack of clear communications about drinking water quality and risks.
Recognizing the need to respond, US EPA has already announced funding to increase public awareness of water quality monitoring and reporting, specifically related to private water systems, such as individually owned wells, that are not under the jurisdiction of the SDWA. Although still difficult to navigate, the agency does provide instructions and guidance to utilities on how to effectively communicate monitoring results in the CCRs as well as instructions for consumers on how to interpret the information.2
Other agencies, including NSF International, provide additional guidance on understanding CCRs. On their website, NSF walks consumers through example reports and provides a data dictionary of terms.5 Recognizing the need for improved educational resources and easy-access tools related to drinking water quality at or near the point of use, the Water Quality Association and the Water Quality Research Foundation have committed to supporting the development of consumer-friendly resources on contamination frequency and also treatment options.
One example is the WQRF-funded data collection effort that compiled approximately 60 million data points over a 10-year period, tracking the historical quality of water by region.6 The tool, known as the Contaminant Occurrence Map, currently targets 57 different regulated contaminants. Another WQRF-funded project, in collaboration with the University of Arizona, focuses on the development of online tools for reporting regional contaminant information, building on the Contaminant Occurrence Map and further identifying POU treatment technologies.7 The purpose of this project is to create a tool for consumers to easily search the occurrence of priority drinking water contaminants nationally and in their region, link to simplified health outcome information and identify appropriate POU/POE technologies for treatment, all in one place.
Overall, the goal is to develop effective communication strategies including short communications in the form of two- to five-minute video microblasts, non-technical expert interviews and practical, informative summaries aimed at the consumer. Information will also be developed for industry members to share with customers to promote discussions on water and health impacts.
Increasing consumer knowledge, attitudes and perceptions
The prevalence of current and emerging waterborne contaminants continues to drive the need for accurate consumer education from trusted sources about the benefits of POU/POE applications. While a majority of consumers report concerns about the quality of their drinking water, many lack usable knowledge of risks and appropriate mitigation strategies.8,9 User-friendly, online tools aimed at increasing consumer knowledge, attitudes and perceptions (KAP) relative to POU benefits are needed. Improved KAP is expected to lead to better-informed consumer decisions to empower individuals to improve their health.
- US EPA. Consumer Confidence Reports: Final Rule. 1998. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-1998-02-13/html/98-3752.htm. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- US EPA. Safe Drinking Water Act: Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR). https://www.epa.gov/ccr. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- Evans J, Carpenter AT. Utility approaches to evaluating the effectiveness of consumer confidence reports. Util Policy. 2019;58:136-144. doi:10.1016/j.jup.2019.05.004
- UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK. Complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief: Natural Resources Defense Council v. Andrew Wheeler, US EPA. Case 1:21-cv-00461-VEC.
- NSF International. Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs). https://www.nsf.org/knowledge-library/consumer-confidence-reports. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- WQA. WQRF-funded data collection yields contaminant map. https://www.wqa.org/resources/news-releases/id/287/wqrf-funded-data-collection-yields-contaminant-map. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- WC&P International. Global Spotlight – WCP Online. https://wcponline.com/2021/01/15/global-spotlight-150/. Published 2021. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- U.S. Drinking Water Filtration and Treatment Survey. NSF International. https://www.nsf.org/knowledge-library/drinking-water-filtration-treatment-survey. Accessed February 11, 2021.
- WQA. Summary & Highlights: National Study of Consumers’ Opinions & Perceptions Regarding Water Quality. Water Quality Association. http://wqa.org/Portals/0/Publications/ConsumerStudy2019_Public.pdf. Published 2019. Accessed February 11, 2021.
About the author
Dr. Kelly A. Reynolds is a University of Arizona Professor at the College of Public Health; Chair of Community, Environment and Policy; Program Director of Environmental Health Sciences and Director of Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC). She holds a Master of Science Degree in public health (MSPH) from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Arizona. Reynolds is WC&P’s Public Health Editor and a former member of the Technical Review Committee. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org