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Is it Actually Safe to Drink? Understanding Which Factors Impact Water Quality and the Perception of Healthy Drinking Water

Is it Actually Safe to Drink? Understanding Which Factors Impact Water Quality and the Perception of Healthy Drinking Water

Safe, healthy drinking water is one of those things first world countries take for granted. It’s always there when you need it, yet you rarely think about how incredible that is. For centuries, obtaining clean drinking water was a time consuming, energy-depleting effort. However, it’s not just history – it’s a current struggle in many parts of the world. And despite the fact that Americans have pristine drinking water when compared to most of the world, some still aren’t convinced it’s healthy enough to meet their standards.
Analyzing some of the unique factors that impact both the quality of drinking water in the United States, while simultaneously reviewing some of the factors that play into the public perception of water quality can lead to an interesting discussion.

“A better understanding of the processes that influence the public perception can contribute to improvements in water management, consumer services, and acceptability of water reuse and risk communication, among other areas,” writes Miguel de Franca Doria, author of a research study on this very issue.

Physical Factors Affecting the Quality of Water

In light of the EPAs recent announcement that hydraulic fracking is in fact safe and does not negatively impact drinking water, let’s analyze some of the factors that do affect the public supply of drinking water.

- Geochemical conditions. Certain geochemical conditions can influence whether or not contaminants that have been released into ground water will degrade before reaching public supply wells.

- Amount of rain. Over time, various substances from the air are collected in the rain as it falls towards the earth. When this rain hits the ground, it flows over things like rocks and soil. At this time, water may pick up other substances – such as calcium carbonate from limestone. Depending on local runoff patterns, the substances contained in this water may reach public supply wells.

- Local farming. Farming, forestry, and mining – on industrial levels – may impact the quality of local lakes, rivers, and groundwater. This is typically a result of the use of pesticides and the increased concentration of nutrients. In extreme situations, this can lead to a negative impact on the aquatic ecosystem.

Psychological Factors Impacting the Perception of Water Quality

Domestic water supplies are relatively safe when compared to global water supplies; however, this doesn’t stop Americans from questioning the water they drink. According to Franca Doria’s research, the following factors impact perception.

Trust in water companies/government. Research shows that a large percentage of Americans believe water companies are more concerned about profitability than they are about health. Survey respondents suggest better lines of communication would improve perception.

Personal experience. Past experiences with foreign tastes, odors, and colors in drinking water can impact a person’s perception moving forward. Familiarity is also key. When people move from one locale to another, where the taste, smell, or appearance of water differs, negative connotations tend to surface. 

Bridging the Gap Between Fact and Perception

While the aforementioned physical factors affect the quality of water in certain situations, very rarely are American water supplies compromised on a major level. From the EPAs perspective, the fight against negative public perceptions is a heavier battle to fight.

“Carefully designed communication strategies should be used to communicate with consumers, particularly with regard to foreseen changes in the supply and during disrupting events,” Franca Doria writes. “Freshwater education is important from an early age and should focus on locally relevant issues, covering aspects such as tap water uses and water sources.”

Once water supply companies and government organizations are able to improve the public perception of water quality, Americans will begin to better appreciate the cleanliness of the domestic water supply and turn their attention towards helping less developed regions around the world.
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Freshwater Science