- 76% of Black adults worry “a great deal” about polluted drinking water
- White Americans are less likely to worry a great deal, at 48%
- Racial and ethnic gaps persist, even controlling for political party affiliation
Over the past two decades, Gallup has consistently found that Americans worry more about pollution of drinking water than other environmental concerns. A closer look at the data reveals that Black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely than White Americans to have this concern.
In response to Gallup’s annual environmental polls from 2019 to 2023, 56% of Americans overall said they worry “a great deal” about pollution of drinking water. However, that sentiment was expressed by 76% of Black adults and 70% of Hispanic adults, compared with less than half (48%) of White adults.
Those gaps can partly be attributed to racial and ethnic differences in political party affiliation: Black and Hispanic adults are much more inclined to identify politically as Democrats or to lean Democratic. And Democrats and Democratic leaners tend to be more focused on environmental issues than Republicans and Republican leaners. However, racial gaps in concern about drinking-water pollution persist even within political parties. In the combined 2019-2023 data, for example, 64% of White Democrats said they worry a great deal about the possibility, versus 79% of Black Democrats and 73% of Hispanic Democrats.
Concerns About Water Pollution Rose Among All Americans in Aftermath of Flint Crisis
Racial and ethnic differences in concern about drinking water likely stem from a mixture of direct experience and media coverage of disasters that have disproportionately affected minority communities. Many low-income Black and Hispanic Americans live in areas with aging water infrastructure. A 2019 analysis of EPA data found that race was most strongly related to living in a community with ineffective enforcement of federal drinking water laws, with people of color less likely than White people to be protected from polluted water.
Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely than White Americans to worry about water pollution even before several crises resulting from polluted drinking water in majority-Black communities became national news over the past decade. The most prominent of these occurred in Flint, Michigan, beginning in 2014, when the city switched its drinking-water supply to the Flint River to cut costs, resulting in tainted tap water that caused skin rashes and hair loss. The polluted water also led to elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children -- exposure that can cause developmental issues and lifelong health problems.
The crisis became an ongoing news story as a coalition of citizens and advocacy groups formed and in 2016 sued city and state officials on behalf of Flint’s majority-Black population. The following year, a major settlement required the city to replace thousands of lead pipes and take further steps to ensure Flint residents had access to clean water. During the five-year period that included the Flint crisis and its aftermath (2014-2018), the proportion of Americans saying they worried a great deal about water pollution climbed to 60%, and it returned to about eight in 10 (79%) among Black adults after dropping somewhat in the previous five-year period.
Concerns about polluted water have fallen only somewhat in the ensuing years as challenges facing minority communities have continued. Problems with failing water systems in the predominantly Black cities of Newark, New Jersey, in 2019 and Jackson, Mississippi, in 2021 and 2022 led to emergency situations. Recent studies have also highlighted the disproportionate exposure of Latino Americans in rural communities to tainted water, including many near industrial farms in the West that pollute local water.
Black and Hispanic Americans’ greater likelihood to worry about tainted water suggests a lack of faith in regulators to keep the public safe in light of crises like those in Flint and other cities with large communities of color. In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water a grade of C-, noting that funding for the system has not kept pace with the need to address aging infrastructure in many areas.
In September 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the creation of a new national office of environmental justice, citing the disproportionate impact of pollution and other environmental issues on low-income communities and communities of color. The office lists addressing drinking-water challenges among underserved communities and eliminating disparities in childhood blood lead levels among its key areas of focus. However, it faces a formidable challenge in closing racial gaps in Americans’ apprehension that U.S. drinking water may not be safe.
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