Safe Drinking Water Soars as a Health Concern, Poll Finds

The crisis in Flint appears to have undermined public confidence in government's ability to deliver safe services, but Americans still trust state officials more than the federal government.

The man-made public health disaster in Flint, Michigan, in which failure to properly treat the water supply resulted in citywide lead contamination, has caused fear about drinking water safety to rise as topic Americans are following closely, according to the most recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

The poll, released Friday, found 70% of Americans are following the Flint drinking water story either “very closely” or “fairly closely,” behind only the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium, and the 2016 presidential contest generally.

When asked about a series of health issues facing the country, more than a third (35%) identified contaminated drinking water as “extremely serious,” behind cancer (43%) and similar to heroin abuse (35%) and ahead of major diseases such as heart disease ( 27%) and diabetes (31%).

Flint’s water crisis appears to have put a dent in the public’s confidence that government can deliver clean water and other basic services, such as electricity and public sewer. This is especially true in the Midwest, with Americans in the Northeast almost as skeptical, according to the poll. Women have less confidence than men that services will be safe and reliable, the poll found.

Results found that 23% of women and 22% of men were “not at all confident” in their state government’s ability to ensure safe water, followed by 51% of women and 44% of men who were “somewhat confident.” That left only 26% of women and 33% of men who were very or extremely confident that state government could guarantee safe water.

But state government fared better than the federal government: when asked to rate the job “your state” or the “federal government” was doing in protecting public drinking water safety, 17% of respondents said their state was doing an “excellent” job and 32% were doing a “good” job. By contrast, only 7% thought the federal government was doing an “excellent” job and 29% found the federal government doing a “good” job.

With 45% nationwide rating their state as doing a fair or poor job, the pollsters looked at how this broke down by region of the country. In the Midwest, which would include Michigan, 52% rated their state’s performance as fair or poor. In the Northeast, which includes several cities in New Jersey that have received attention for high lead levels in schools, 49% of the residents rated their state’s job as fair or poor. The South’s performance rated 43% and the West was 39%.

Ratings for state government’s ability to deliver public sewer were close to that of water, with 36% of men rating saying they were extremely or very confident the state would deliver safe service, and 27% of women saying they were extremely or very confident of this.

Americans were somewhat more confident about electricity service, which is actually delivered by private companies although it is regulated by state authorities. Among men, 43% said they were extremely or very confident their state would deliver safe service, and 35% of women said this.