PRINCETON, NJ -- The folks behind World Water Day -- a largely U.N.-sponsored effort to focus attention on freshwater resource management, observed this past Sunday -- may be on to something. Pollution of drinking water is Americans' No. 1 environmental concern, with 59% saying they worry "a great deal" about the issue. That exceeds the 45% worried about air pollution, the 42% worried about the loss of tropical rain forests, and lower levels worried about extinction of species and global warming.
All eight issues tested in the 2009 Gallup Environment survey, conducted March 5-8, appear to be important to Americans, evidenced by the finding that a majority of Americans say they worry at least a fair amount about each one. However, on the basis of substantial concern -- that is, the percentage worrying "a great deal" about each -- there are important distinctions among them.
The four water-related issues on the poll fill the top four spots in this year's ranking. In addition to worrying about pollution of drinking water, roughly half of Americans also express a high degree of worry about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (52% worry a great deal about this), and water and soil contamination from toxic waste (52%). About half worry about the maintenance of the nation's supply of fresh water for household needs (49%).
Air pollution places fifth among the environmental problems rated this year; 45% are worried a great deal about it. That issue is closely followed by the loss of tropical rain forests, with 42% -- although significantly more Americans say they worry little or not at all about rain forests than say this about air pollution (32% vs. 24%).
Extinction of plant and animal species and global warming are of great concern to just over a third of Americans. However, since more Americans express little to no worry about global warming than say this about extinction, global warming is clearly the environmental issue of least concern to them. In fact, global warming is the only issue for which more Americans say they have little to no concern than say they have a great deal of concern.
Gallup has maintained annual trends on public concern for these eight environmental issues since 2000. (Some items have trends dating back to 1989, available at the end of this report.) The long-term picture since 2000 -- based on substantial concern about the issues -- is one of declining concern except for the maintenance of household water, which has increased slightly.
However, as exemplified by the trends in concern about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, as well as concern about air pollution, the declines were most evident between 2000 and 2004, with the 2004 levels dipping to a record low for most issues.
Since 2004, public concern about the eight environmental matters rated this year has either been stable, or risen. The largest increase in concern is seen with global warming. Despite remaining at the bottom of the list of expressed concerns, the issue has nevertheless seen an eight-point increase in the last five years. There has been a similar seven-point increase in concern about the loss of tropical rain forests over that time.
The era of water pollution as a hot political issue in the United States ended sometime after the Environmental Protection Agency received powerful regulatory tools with the 1972 Clean Water Act and the follow-up 1987 Water Quality Act. Still, given the essential nature of water to sustaining human and other life, it is not surprising to find that some form of water pollution has been the top-ranking environmental issue of concern to Americans in each Gallup reading since 1989. Mention water in the context of environmental problems, and more than half of Americans still say it's something that greatly concerns them.
Beyond water pollution, air pollution is the next-highest-ranking environmental issue. However, three issues register less public concern -- notable because they nevertheless are widely discussed in the media and public affairs: loss of tropical rain forests, extinction of plant and animal species, and global warming.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 5-8, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
For results based on the 512 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 500 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.