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Water: Consumer Information

Findings C. How can EPA present data in a more meaningful way?

What kind of information would you like to have in an information piece (e.g., a brochure or report) to help educate people on the quality of your drinking water? What would make it likely you would pick it up and read it?

A number of people said they wanted to be provided with as much information as possible about the current status of their drinking water (e.g., contaminant levels and how to interpret them), how water is treated and what is "added" or removed, where it comes from, and what is being done to improve the overall quality of their water.

"I would want to know the mercury content, lead content, and probably the biological content; what kind of condition the water's in. And how those [levels] stand up to whatever the standards are." (Sioux Falls respondent)

"I've heard somewhere that -- well, we all know there's fluoride in the water. But isn't there a certain level where it becomes harmful?" (Tacoma respondent)

"Once they get it from the source, how do they treat it so we can drink it. I mean, if we're getting our water out of the Sioux River, what are they doing to it to make it safe because I certainly wouldn't drink it right out." (Sioux Falls respondent)

There was also a segment of respondents who indicated they would not be interested in hearing any information unless it has direct, immediate relevance to their personal situation. They also said they would be more inclined to get information from the media (e.g., television or radio reports) than to look at brochures enclosed with their water bills, for example.

Participants in a focus group in Sioux Falls complained about the quantity of "junk mail" they receive with their mail, including pamphlets enclosed with utility bills that are not particularly interesting to them. A number of participants said they would definitely be interested in reading an informational brochure on water quality, however they would need to have a "flag" to let them know such a brochure was in their mail. For example, one participant suggested adding a line, "See important health information enclosed" next to the "total due" box on the water bill, where everyone will look. Others suggested putting a notice on the front of the envelope.

"Junk mail, there's too much junk mail every day. It would have to be something that said 'Please Read,' or 'Some Important Information About Your Water'." (Sioux Falls respondent)

Reactions to ICR drinking water data:

Participants in Atlanta, who viewed the ICR data, generally had difficulty reading and understanding much of the ICR report.

"This is technical. To an extent that nobody is going to understand what the heck is going on. If I was some type of scientist, if I was some type of biologist..."

Participants said they would not understand why they were receiving the report.

"I'd want to know, why are we getting all this?"

Participants also said they were not motivated to read the chart in depth to interpret the data, due to its complexity.

"I'd have no interest [in the chart]. It just looks like it's high. You know what, it just doesn't make a lot of sense."

Instead, participants recommended putting the ICR data into a format that would more directly relate to the individual, average consumer.

"What I want to know is does it directly affect me, so I'm in Fulton County and my water comes from Fulton County Water Plant. I want to know what's going on in there, if there is a problem, how is it being treated, and what we can do to make it better."

"I guess I'd want to know when it got to a dangerous level. I don't know if they need to tell us how they do it."

In particular, they found the scientific terminology and lack of an explanation in "layman's terms" made the information extremely challenging. One focus group suggested creating a color bar graph to indicate contaminant levels for key contaminants. They said this method would allow them to visualize existing contaminant levels versus allowed standards.

"They need to put it in layman's terms, saying your water plant has exceeded the level recommended by whoever."

"Like maybe red, green -- maybe like green is a good zone, yellow is a caution zone, red is danger, and then where the water is."

Reactions to Envirofacts safe drinking water report(s):

What message do you get from the Envirofacts report? Does one city look different to you? Do any violation types stand out? If all violations are in the past, how confident are you that your drinking water is safe today and will be in the future?

The Envirofacts safe drinking water reports met with varied reactions by respondents. Some said they liked the level of detail, specifically the listing of violations in their area and corrective action. However, many found the report confusing because of the use of undefined acronyms, unspecified maximum contaminant levels, and unspecified level of contaminant actually measured. Terms such as "turbidity" were also not defined and confusing to readers. The presence of violation numbers, and lack of explanation about specific violations and actions of contaminants, was also a source of frustration.

"I don't care about what violation number it is. I mean, I'd like to know when it was, what's the contaminant, what does it do, why is it bad for you." (Atlanta respondent)

Several participants thought the Envirofacts information was confusing, geared toward people with a scientific or environmental background, and needed interpretation. Some people suggested that the Envirofacts information be provided as a supplement to text-based information, instead of as a stand-alone document.

A number of individuals, when confronted with a long list of violations, particularly in their area, grew alarmed or upset by the information and indicated the violations caused them to think their water is unsafe or "dirty." Other respondents said that, even if the contaminants were harmless, simply knowing that contaminants had been found in the water would dissuade them from drinking it.

"If I knew they found -- if I knew they found different [contaminants] in there, I don't think I'd want to drink it. Now I'm not saying that these will hurt me or anything. But just knowing it...." (Washington, DC respondent)

The Envirofacts report is available over the Internet for drinking water systems throughout the U.S. Do you think that the Internet is an appropriate place to disseminate information on drinking water? Why?

A number of respondents said they use the Internet and might look at the site if they knew how to find it, but it would take more effort than the average person would want to expend. An equal or greater number said they do not have access to the Internet. Almost all participants felt that, while the site is a good idea and a more in-depth source of information that should be provided for people, the Internet is only one of many mediums that should be used to communicate important information.

"I don't think it should be just the Internet. There are too many people who don't have computers." (Atlanta respondent)

Reactions to the Consumer Confidence Report:

Respondents were shown two different versions of the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR): one from Denver, Colorado, and one from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) in suburban Prince George's and Montgomery Counties in Maryland.

Reactions to the formats of the brochures was divided along two lines. One segment of the respondents strongly preferred the glossy, full color layout of the Denver CCR. The other segment preferred the WSSC brochure, mainly because it was "more straightforward." Some of the respondents who favored the WSSC report felt that the Denver report looked too slick.

What in particular do you like about the CCR? Dislike?

When asked about preferences for chart style, most respondents said they liked the Denver layout because it is "easier to read" -- even respondents who had favored the WSSC report overall. However, because the WSSC list of contaminants tested for was more extensive, some participants felt that WSSC is testing for more contaminants than Denver. In general, some participants were confused by the units of measurement used in the chart (e.g., "parts per billion").

"That wouldn't really tell me much. I guess that's some kind of measurements they'll measure it by. But it wouldn't really tell me much.[...] Just put some little footnotes or something on here." (Washington, DC respondent)

Participants in a focus group in Sioux Falls also expressed confusion about the notice informing them about filters and bottled water:

"The note at the bottom is making me wonder, even more, if this level of contaminants is okay and its okay to drink tap water, then why is it necessary that we have filters and stuff on the market? Is this a bunch of hype or is the water safe?" (Sioux Falls respondent)

Many respondents said they particularly liked the definitions given in the CCR. Other said they appreciated the explanation of the process used to treat water.

"I like how they tell you how the water's treated." (Sioux Falls respondent)

"Explanations of what some of the things are. For instance, the definitions down in the right hand corner. Those let me know what they're trying to say as far as parts per million, parts per billion, and all of that." (Maryland respondent)

If a report like the CCR was included in your water bill, would you read it?

Most respondents said they would at least look at a CCR if it was included in their water bill, while a large number said they would pay close attention to the information provided in it, even if they didn't understand everything.

"I would read the whole paper. I might not understand it. But I would read it." (Washington, DC respondent)

However, some individuals said they might lose interest in the CCR if it was included in every statement -- they recommended alternating months between issuing the report, or providing an annual report, unless a problem had been discovered with the water.

Other respondents who do not actually receive their water bill (e.g., apartment dwellers) expressed great interest in receiving the report by some other means. Some respondents who live in the suburban area covered by the WSSC said they had never seen the report specifically for this reason.

Let's say we wanted to make sure you would get this information, but we wanted to put it in a format that was more friendly to consumers. How else can you imagine this type of information being presented? What format would make it most likely that you would actually read it, if any?

Repeatedly, participants said the best way for getting information about water contaminant levels is through the mass media, either in the form of bulletins or regular updates.

"If there's something serious, they'll tell us on the news that our weather system is bad."

A group in Atlanta voiced an idea which was heard from many other individuals across the country.

"Like on cable, where you have the news station and they talk about the weather forecast, why couldn't the talk about the water on those kinds of stations? Do you know what I'm talking about? Like the pollen count."

A focus group in Maryland echoed this idea.

"I would suggest -- we have local air quality indexes, we could have water quality indexes as well through the media, which reaches the most people."

Other respondents agreed that information should be provided in the water bill, in order to provide a more detailed report of water quality.

"I think, pretty much, in the water bill would be the perfect place. Put the information in your water bill, and if people are interested in reading that, then they can, and the people who aren't can toss it. But they have to tell the people who are drinking the water, what the reports were last month or if there's any risks or violations in the previous month for people who are interested." (Atlanta respondent)

Who should be responsible for providing this information to you? (local utility company, the government, environmental organization, your doctor) Why? (probe for perceived trust levels)

While most participants said they might expect to get information about water quality from their water company, the issue of reliability and credibility was also discussed. Some participants felt that if violations were found, that could be interpreted as error on the part of the water company. This in turn might lead the water company to misinform or "pad" the truth from the public.

"You've always got that group in government who's trying to protect themselves. They've made a mistake and now they're trying to protect themselves, and they don't always tell the truth. You see that all the time in different phases of government. So, with the WSSC it would be the same sort of thing. I'm afraid they would be lying to you, just like any corporation would be. They don't always tell the truth because they're protecting themselves." (Washington, DC respondent)

In general, most participants felt that these concerns would be alleviated if they were provided assurance that accurate, reliable testing is being conducted on a regular basis by scientists. Providing neutral third parties, such as an independent lab, to conduct the tests was one suggestion for resolving consumers' fears. The concept of an overseeing agency, such as the EPA, also provided reassurance.

"I would rather go to the EPA, hoping that the government would expose any problems that the WSSC might have because they have no interest in WSSC, I hope."

Would you be interested in information on a national level about drinking water? On a state level? On a local level (i.e., your water utility)? On the source level (i.e., lake, river, well)? Is there one you are especially interested in?

Most respondents who answered this question indicated they might be vaguely interested in information on a national level, but would be most likely to read information pertaining to their own drinking water. Some respondents expressed interest in hearing information on a regional basis, while others said they would be interested in hearing about activities or areas of concern that might be going on in their community that might directly impact them.

Response to "Water on Tap" booklet -- information on why EPA allows contaminants, and how does EPA set drinking water standards. Do these sections make sense? What are they telling you? Does reading this information change the way you understand the data we just looked at?

The specific sections about contaminants and standards for these contaminants were generally understood and well received. Some participants said they were reassured by the information that most contaminants are harmless or even help improve the taste of drinking water.

"Like they said, it would wash throughout, it goes throughout the system and it probably won't have any effect on our body, which is interesting. I'm glad to hear that." (Washington, DC respondent)

However, some of the statements caused disagreement or confusion. One individual in Tacoma expressed confusion over the concept that some contaminants may improve the taste of drinking water. A woman in Maryland disagreed with the statement about cost implications and lack of a harmful effect by contaminants; she wanted everything removed from her water.

"Who cares, you know? I mean cost, the thing about cost. Who's to say what hurts you won't hurt me. Get them all out."

Some participants said that, while they understood what the segments of text were saying, the information did not affect their concerns sparked by the nitrate warning and the CCR. One Atlanta respondent did not feel comfortable with figures based on lifetime exposure.

"No, I don't think it changes what I thought of the graph and the other information. [...] Sometimes when I read a little, I worry more. I begin to wonder, you know, why am I putting my life in the hands of somebody who is a bean counter? [...] I don't think I like the fact that a lot of these figures are based on lifetime exposure. I think they should be considerably narrowed, in my opinion." (Atlanta respondent)

It should be noted that some participants, upon receiving the full booklet at the end of the session, were very enthusiastic about the level of information provided and the credibility of the source.

"I love this book. I mean it will help me out with anything I'm looking for. It answered my own question. 'What is that?' And there it is sitting right in front of me. I like this type of book, this is more detailed, it explains a lot more and this is from the National Drinking Water Advisory." (Tacoma respondent)

How Can EPA Get Customers More Involved? How is EPA Doing?

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