60% in Del. prefer not to drink water from tap

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

60% in Del. prefer not to drink water from tap

By JEFF MONTGOMERY Staff reporter 07/30/2000

Nearly 60 percent of Delaware residents do not drink tap water at home, relying instead on bottled or filtered supplies, according to a News Journal poll.

The poll found that residents choose filtered or bottled water because they are worried about the safety of public water supplies, or don't like the taste.

This preference for filtered or bottled water is in line with national usage, according to an expert on tap water alternatives.

Overall, more than 25 percent of residents polled said the environment is something they worry about every day, and another 25 percent said they worry about it once a week.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said they were concerned about air quality.

More than 51 percent rated the state's enforcement of air and water pollution laws as good or better.

The poll results are based on a survey of 477 people from across the state done by the University of Delaware's Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research.

The survey was conducted from June 12 through July 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.

The News Journal commissioned the poll to help inform voters about the political debate on environmental and other issues.

The poll also can give state residents a broad impression of what is important to them and their neighbors.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said they need to study the results before commenting in detail.

But they noted that federally mandated testing has found relatively few problems with Delaware's public water supplies.

They said they welcome the poll information because state agencies seldom conduct broad surveys.

Joseph A. Pika, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, said polls on environmental matters require careful unraveling and often reveal overlapping concerns.

For example, views about growth and traffic issues affect how people feel about air and water quality, he said.

"I know there's a level of concern about health-related matters in Delaware -- high cancer levels and environmental pollution," Pika said.

The News Journal poll found that 87 percent of Delawareans are worried about the state's cancer death rate, which is among the top 10 in the nation.

And 69.5 percent of respondents supported controls on housing development to curb sprawl.

More than 64 percent of respondents said drinking water safety was a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

Of the 59.8 percent of respondents who drink filtered or bottled water, 30 percent do so because they think it is safer, and 27 percent because it tastes better. The rest don't know.

Edward S. Osienski of Scottfield, near Newark, knows exactly why his family has used bottled drinking water for the past year.

"We use it because of past instances of high levels of chlorides and stuff in our faucets," Osienski said.

He cited last year's drought, when United Water Delaware briefly violated federal drinking water standards for salt content.

Kevin Charles, state health systems protection chief, said the number of people using bottled or filtered water surprised him.

"It does seem to be quite large," Charles said. "But then, I think it reflects a national trend. The bottled water industry has just done a tremendous marketing job over the past few years, and I think people have more money to spend on such things."

Women, minorities and New Castle County residents were more likely to object to the taste of home tap water.

Minorities were more likely to rely on filters than bottled supplies to replace tap water.

The Rev. James E. Coffield Jr., a Wilmington resident, said he is not as concerned about the water as Osienski.

"I don't necessarily like water," he said. "But when I drink it, I drink it right out of the tap."

DNREC's Division of Public Health regularly collects test results from water utilities and conducts its own water testing.

Gov. Tom Carper's administration in 1999 increased staffing for the division's Office of Drinking Water after federal regulators put it on a seldom-used type of probation and held back $100,000 in grants.

The probation capped years of federal complaints about skipped water system tests in Delaware and record-keeping problems in the office.

Jonathan O. Hall, who publishes a national business newsletter on tap water alternatives, said Delawareans' preference for filtered or bottled water matches usage in the rest of the nation.

"I think health is a concern, but the overwhelming driver is taste," Hall said.

Charles said bottled water and filter suppliers carefully soft-pedal findings that public water supplies are safe.

"The advertising is very effective," Charles said. "There is a subtle hint that this is for your safety, and in some cases with the filtration systems, it's not so subtle."

Air quality also a worry

Only slightly behind water quality concerns in the poll were worries about the air.

More than 20 percent of respondents said air quality in their communities was a very serious problem and another 34 percent said it was somewhat serious.

"There could be a lot of reasons why people perceive an air quality problem," said David Small, DNREC information and education chief. "Are people paying more attention to air quality? If so, that's a good thing."

Delaware's recent record on air quality has been mixed.

The number of days the state's air has exceeded federal limits for acute ozone -- 12 parts per billion in any one hour -- has dropped from 28 in 1988 to four in 1999. All four of those violations came in New Castle County. Kent County was over the limit two of those days.

But exposure to chronically high ozone levels -- an average of 8.5 parts per billion over eight hours -- remains a serious and, in some cases, worsening problem. Chronic levels exceeded federal health standards on 29 days last year.

More than 38 percent of respondents said industry was primarily responsible for air pollution, with almost 30 percent blaming cars and almost 20 percent blaming trucks.

New Castle County residents and women were more likely to cite industry as a leading source of air pollution, while minorities more often cited trucks and tractor-trailers.

"That's encouraging, for people to recognize that what they're driving, their individual habits, can have an impact on air quality," Small said.

Utilities produce 46 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in Delaware, with transportation, mainly car traffic, accounting for another 28 percent and industrial activity for 15 percent, according to a 1995 study by the University of Delaware's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy.

Coffield, the Wilmington pastor, said he was alarmed by deteriorating air quality across the state.

"I have children with upper respiratory problems, and when the warnings are out, I don't have them running around," Coffield said. "I think the requirements for emissions, especially from automobiles, should be tighter."

Dirty air ranked as a serious problem for 60.9 percent of those polled in New Castle County, compared with 42.9 percent in Kent and Sussex counties.

Bowers, the Scottfield resident, said she seldom pays close attention to local air quality reports or debates over pollution.

"I don't necessarily think we're doing any worse than other states," Bowers said.

Roberta Clippert, 73, said she pays close attention to air quality and pollution reports at her home in Bear.

"I'm elderly, and if they tell me it's bad, I kind of stay indoors," she said. "Some days it's worse than others. Sometimes we get the smell from the refinery at Delaware City."

But regulators do well

Poll respondents said they often worry about the environment. More than 25 percent of respondents worry about it daily.

Dagsboro area resident Debby M. Disharoon, 51, said she worries about environmental matters only a few times a month.

"I think the environment has improved over the years," Disharoon said. "If I drive past a lake or something, it might enter my mind, but it's not something that comes up once a week or anything."

Despite concerns about air and water quality, however, respondents were satisfied with state regulation.

More than 80 percent of respondents said state regulation was fair or better. Regulation was rated as poor by 12 percent of respondents.

DNREC's Small cautioned that news events could bring rapid shifts in public opinion.

If a follow-up poll were taken after recent reports about fish kills in Delaware's inland bays, the findings could look significantly different, he said.

But Carolyn Buckner, 67, said newspaper stories about recent fish kills in the inland bays had little effect on her opinion.

"We haven't had any real problems with air quality here," said Buckner, a part-year resident of a mobile home community near Dagsboro. "But there are a lot of chicken farms around here, and if it's real hot and humid, you can smell them."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 30, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ