Since news first broke of water problems in Flint, Michigan, drinking water quality – and inequality of access to clean water – has been in the national spotlight. Reports have surfaced of problems here at home, too, with some cities in NJ allegedly having more lead-affected children than in Flint, as well as lead issues at Morristown Medical Center and most recently in Newark schools.
The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll has actually been asking about water quality for a few decades now, along with other questions dealing with the environment, pollution, and health. We wanted to take a look back at a few of our past questions on water to see where things stand now given recent events.
MAJORITY OF NEW JERSEYANS CONCERNED ABOUT QUALITY OF DRINKING WATER, WATER POLLUTION
But two-thirds are satisfied with their home tap water, Rutgers-Eagleton Poll finds
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Like much of the nation in the wake of the Flint, Mich. water crisis, New Jerseyans are concerned about the quality of their drinking water, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Amid reports of similar lead problems here at home, 52 percent of New Jersey residents are concerned about the water they drink: 33 percent are very concerned, and 19 percent are somewhat concerned. Twenty-two percent are not very concerned, and 24 percent are not concerned at all.
In general, most New Jerseyans say that water pollution is at least a somewhat serious problem. Twenty-five percent believe it is a very serious problem, and another 37 percent say it is somewhat serious; 28 percent feel it is not too serious. Yet the number of those who see it as very serious is currently at an all-time low after several decades above the 50-percent mark.
Despite strong general concern, New Jerseyans are mostly satisfied with the quality of the water coming into their homes. Nineteen percent rate their tap water as excellent, 45 percent rate it as good, 20 percent rate it only fair, and 14 percent rate it as poor. These ratings have changed little over the past two decades.
“Decades of polling show us that water quality and pollution have long been concerns in New Jersey, given the state’s history of polluted waterways,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “Residents as a whole are more positive now than in the past, but a heightened sense of concern persists among those who still suffer from substandard water access and quality, a consequence of racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities.”
While residents are generally pleased with tap water quality, they prefer bottled or filtered water for drinking. Thirty-seven percent mostly use bottled water, 32 percent use filtered water, and 21 percent drink right from the tap. Ten percent use some combination of these methods. Tap water usage is down slightly since the Poll last asked about it more than a decade ago.
Results are from a statewide poll of 801 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Feb. 18 to 23, 2016. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.9 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.
Heightened concerns among those most impacted
Concern over drinking water quality is pervasive: about half or more of every demographic is at least somewhat concerned.
Concern is especially high among those who give their tap water quality negative ratings. Thirty-eight percent of residents who rate their tap water as only fair are very concerned, and another 30 percent are somewhat concerned. Among those who say their water is poor, 64 percent are very concerned; another 8 percent, somewhat. Those who rate their water as good or excellent, on the other hand, are much less worried. Half of residents who rate their water as good are concerned at some level, as are a third of those who rate it as excellent.
The type of water in one’s home also has a significant impact. Residents who use city water are more concerned than those with access to well water – 55 percent (35 percent very, 20 percent somewhat) versus 36 percent (20 percent very, 16 percent somewhat).
Likewise, users of filtered water (53 percent) and especially bottled water (62 percent) are more likely to express concern than those who drink water right from the tap (40 percent). The relationship goes both ways: those who express the most concern are least likely to drink tap water and more likely to use an alternative method.
Views on the severity of water pollution, in general, follow similar patterns. Thirty-two percent of residents who rate their own water as fair and 66 percent who rate it as poor believe water pollution is very serious; about one in ten say the same among those who rate their water as good or excellent. Residents who use bottled or filtered water are also more likely than those who drink tap water to believe the problem is very serious. Those who say the problem is very serious are least likely to use tap water.
Opinions on the severity of water pollution and concern over drinking water go hand in hand: the more one is concerned, the more likely he or she is to believe water pollution is a serious problem, and the more likely one is to believe water pollution is serious, the more concerned he or she is about tap water quality.
The water quality divide
Almost two-thirds of New Jerseyans say the quality of their tap water is good or excellent, but a closer look reveals disparities in access, usage, and ratings among certain demographic groups.
Non-white residents are more likely than white residents to have city water where they live (84 percent versus 79 percent), as well as more likely to use bottled water for drinking (44 percent to 32 percent). They are, in turn, less likely than white residents to rate the quality of their drinking water as good (42 percent to 47 percent) or excellent (15 percent versus 22 percent).
Those living in the state’s southern region near Philadelphia, or in shore or especially exurban counties, are most likely to have access to well water and thus more likely than urban or suburban residents to use their tap water for drinking. Almost three quarters of urban and suburban residents use bottled or filtered water as their main drinking source. Urban and especially suburban residents are also most likely to give their home tap water negative ratings.
Those in the highest income bracket are almost twice as likely as those in less affluent households to have well water (at 21 percent). Almost half of low-income residents use bottled water for drinking, more than any other income bracket. Water ratings increase with income: 61 percent say their water is excellent or good among those in households making $50,000 or less annually, compared to 69 percent among those making $150,000 or more.
While ratings vary little between those with city and well water, residents using city water are much less likely to drink straight from the tap than those with well water.
Residents who predominantly use tap water instead of bottle or filtered water give much higher ratings to the quality of water in their home.
“Race, income, and location drive disparities in tap water access and usage and, in turn, shape ratings on home tap water quality,” said Koning. “Non-white, urban, and lower income residents tend to perceive their water as lower quality, and the situation in Flint as well as recent reports of lead problems here in New Jersey suggest they may have reason for that concern.”