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EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Anticipating Public Questions During a Water Emergency

Published November 2013

EPA study helps drinking water utilities prepare for emergency response communications.

Photo of water coming out of the kitchen tap

In the United States, nearly 155,000 public water systems provide drinking water to more than 300 million people. These systems also provide water that supports public services such as fire suppression.   Because water systems are vulnerable to contamination, intentionally or accidentally, water security has become a national priority.  As the lead federal agency for water security, EPA plays a critical role in this effort.

A deliberate biological attack on drinking water supplies or infrastructure can affect the public’s health and the economic vitality of affected communities, sparking many questions.

To address some of the questions the public may have during a water contamination emergency, EPA researchers sponsored a study to find out how to improve public understanding of critical information during a water supply contamination event.  The study, Need to Know: Anticipating the Public's Questions During a Water Emergency, consisted of interviews with drinking water professionals and consumers in Boston, Chicago, San Diego, and Charlotte. Each utility serves more than 100,000 customers.

EPA homeland security researcher Scott Minamyer, Ph.D. explains the goal of the study: “….effective communication will greatly influence the degree to which the public takes appropriate protective actions and maintains trust in the ability of the utility and other officials to protect them.”

Anticipated questions regarding a drinking water emergency were similar for drinking water professionals and consumers. Maintaining personal safety and having guidance on appropriate actions mattered most to members of the public. Questions identified in the study included how long before the water was safe to drink and what were the plans to restore the water service. Water utility professionals emphasized the need to know the extent of service disruption; they also considered the need for information about remediating the contamination, controlling the incident, and protecting the public’s health.

Additional questions posed by both the public and professionals were: “Where are alternate sources of safe drinking water? “How can people receive additional information on the contamination?”, and “What are the exposure effects of the contamination?”

The survey identified a belief among some members of the public that water utilities frequently test for all possible contaminants, suggesting that water utilities may benefit from being proactive in educating consumers about testing procedures and their results.

Results of the study revealed a general lack of public understanding of drinking water testing procedures. Following an attack and subsequent remediation operations, convincing the public that their water supply is again safe poses substantial challenges. Professionals now recognize that verification by multiple credible authorities will be required.

Other key results of the study include:

  • An intentional water contamination incident in any one location will spark widespread concern, so all water authorities must be prepared to address consumers’ questions regarding security issues for their own systems regardless of which local facilities are affected.
  • Using terms such as “terrorist” and “attack” tend to have some benefit in getting the attention of the public and increasing compliance with directives, but at a very high emotive cost. Limiting the use of these terms as much as possible unless an attack has been definitively confirmed is likely to be beneficial.
  • Critical messages will be more affective when perceived by the public as prescriptive; for example, they should emphasize protective actions and offer clearl directives to follow rather than providing “recommendations.” 

Information collected from the study will assist drinking water professionals and decision makers with crisis communication planning and message development in the event of an intentional drinking water contamination. 

EPA environmental health scientist Cynthia Yund concludes “…having a reliable source of information provides water utility personnel with a readily available, simple-to-use resource to enhance communication during a drinking water emergency.”

Results from the study were published in the April 2012 report, Need to Know: Anticipating the Public’s Questions during a Water Emergency.  The research study was conducted in cooperation with The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.