Risk Analysis

Do Reports on Drinking Water Quality Affect Customers' Concerns? Experiments in Report Content

Journal Article

The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 required U.S. utilities to report on drinking water quality to their customers annually, beginning in fall 1999, on the assumption that such reports would alert them to quality problems and perhaps mobilize pressure for improvement. A random sample of New Jersey customers read alternative versions of a water quality report, in an experiment on reactions to water quality information under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) rules. Experiment design was 2 × 3 + 1: two versions each—one with, one without, a violation of a health standard—of a report that was (1) Qualitative (without water quality numbers, thus not meeting USEPA rules); (2) Basic, with minimal information meeting the rules; or (3) Extended, adding reading aids and utility performance information; plus a control instrument without any hypothetical report. Results of ANOVA suggest the reports will have less effect than hoped or feared. These manipulations were successful: people reading the Qualitative versions were less likely to say that the report gave the amounts of substances found in the water, and those reading Violation versions were more likely to report a violation of a health standard. The main differences in responses to the report involved the judged adequacy of the information, and to a lesser extent responses on a Concern scale (constructed from measures of concern, judged risk, clean‐up intentions, distrust of utility information, and doubt that the utility was doing all it could to improve water quality). Overall judgments of water quality and utility performance did not change, either relative to the controls or in before versus after responses. Qualitative reports performed worse than others, confirming the decision to have utilities report actual contaminant levels. Extended reports did only slightly better than the Basic versions on these measures. Many respondents had trouble identifying the presence or absence of substance amounts or violations, despite their seeming obviousness (e.g., in a “bottom line” summary on the front page of each report), suggesting many were not processing this information carefully. However, the pattern of responses for those who accurately identified the presence or absence of substance amounts or violations did not differ substantially from that for the group as a whole. Generic risk beliefs (serious local environmental problems; lack of control over risks to one's health) dominated demographic variables, attitudes toward utility water quality or trustworthiness, and the content and format of water quality reports in influencing concern about drinking water quality. Previous empirical and theoretical evidence for lack of change in public risk attitudes due to one‐time or infrequent communications—e.g., role of personal experience, perseverance of prior trust or distrust—seems to be confirmed for annual water quality reports.

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