Public Perception of Water Quality Risks-Influencing Factors and Enhancement Opportunities

L. W. Canter
D. I. Nelson
J. W. Everett

DOI: 10.2190/93D9-JF0N-EEF8-W4PW


Public perceptions of the human health risks associated with water quality deterioration have been increasing in recent years, and a better understanding of the determinants of such perceptions and the communication of these perceptions to the policy community will facilitate water quality management. The objective of this study was to conduct a state-of-the-art literature review on factors affecting public perception of risk and levels of acceptable risk in relation to water quality, and to delineate research opportunities for such perceptions in relation to their usage in water quality management. Extensive literature searches yielded approximately 150 papers or other published items related to water quality risk concerns.

Although there have been few comprehensive studies of factors that influence water quality risk perception and the delineation of acceptable risk, many individual and combinations of factors have been identified as affecting perceptions held by different publics. Examples of such factors include whether or not pollution is visible, personal usage of the water resource, historical changes from emphases on bacteriological quality to the occurrence of toxic chemicals, education level, age, proximity to the problem, familiarity with the contaminant and source, trust in local public officials, involvement in decision processes, and poor risk communication efforts. Outrage factors such as whether the risk is voluntary or involuntary, familiar or unfamiliar, controlled by self or controlled by others, memorable or not memorable, dreaded or not dreaded, or natural or unnatural, can also influence risk perception. Complications associated with identifying influencing factors include the facts that: 1) the water environment is technically and scientifically complicated due to hydrodynamic considerations, chemical processes, and the kinetics of bacteriological decomposition; 2) there are many uncertainties associated with risk identification and evaluation; 3) effective communication of risk information to different publics is difficult; and 4) conflicts may arise due to different perceptions of water risk between policy makers, scientific experts, public interest groups, the media, and individuals within the general public.

A fundamental research need in relation to water quality and risk perception is for a basic conceptual model which can be utilized and tested in terms of the factors which influence perceptions of water quality risks held by different publics. The conceptual model should incorporate both individual perception of risks as well as group perception of risks. Acceptable risk needs to be systematically defined and various causative factors or issues should be delineated. Very little information exists on how public perceptions of water quality risks are actually used by policy makers in planning and implementing water quality management programs. Research is also needed on institutional and interdisciplinary barriers to the development and transmission of information needed by policy makers and the general public in their formation of risk perceptions. Consideration should also be given to the degree that narrow disciplinary perspectives influence scientific and technical information communicated to policy makers and the general public.

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