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Virginia Tech researchers call for public water quality reports to directly address water safety

March 1, 2016

Water running out of a faucet
Virginia Tech researchers called attention to the technical language used in annually issued Consumer Confidence Reports. Residents using public water systems should receive a report online or in the mail by July 1 of each year.

Is your water safe to drink?

A Virginia Tech research team suggests that annual water quality reports should more directly answer this question in order to build people’s confidence in and education about their drinking water.

The suggestion comes from its recent study published in the Journal of Water and Health.

In it, the team found that a national sample of Consumer Confidence Reports fails to communicate important information because the reports use complicated language and sophisticated data tables.

As a result, people are left to determine on their own if their water is safe to drink according to state and federal safety regulations.

"We are concerned about whether people are drinking enough water if they don’t understand these reports," said Brenda Davy, a professor of human nutrition, foods and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a core faculty member in the Virginia Tech Water INTERface Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program, and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliated researcher in the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center.

Each year by July 1, people purchasing water from U.S. public water systems should receive a report by mail or online. The goal of the reports is to communicate where water comes from, what’s in it, and whether it meets state and federal safety regulations.

Davy’s concern originally grew from not understanding her report when she received it in the mail  in 2014.

She and her team, including corresponding author Andrea Dietrich, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, analyzed the samples based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Clear Communication Index. This index is designed for writers to ensure public health materials are written with plain everyday language for broad public audiences.

One component of the index suggests materials contain a main message, which is meant to inform people of an overall health message. According to the researchers, these reports should begin by directly stating whether water is safe to drink according to state and federal regulations. This message should then be followed by possible actions to take, such as calling water providers to learn more about testing, regulatory requirements, and potential risk.

"The goal is to inform people about their drinking water and whether water is safe to drink," said Katherine Phetxumphou of Woodbridge, Virginia, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering and lead author on the paper. "This is the clearest way to do it."

Phetxumphou began working with Davy through Virginia Tech’s Water INTERface Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program, and so did co-author Siddhartha Roy of Palanpur, India, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering.

"Please read your annual report," Roy said. "Take a few minutes and make an effort. If you don’t understand it, call your water utility and have them explain. Ask straight, pointed questions about information that seems hard to understand."

Roy speaks from recent personal experience, having spent months as the communications director for FlintWaterStudy.org – a site that, under the direction of  Marc Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor of civil and environmental engineering, sought to inform Flint, Michigan, residents about the city’s lead contamination after switching its water source.

Currently, water quality reports are not required to have a single main message. However, they are intended to increase public understanding of water quality so that people can make informed decisions about their water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s report rule. Including a main message about whether water meets regulations could work better to achieve this outcome and improve public health.

"This study highlights the need for more social science research in this area," said Alan Roberson, director of regulatory affairs at the American Water Works Association, who served as a reviewer of the paper.

"Even though regulations require specific language, water utilities can frame information in terms that people can understand," Roberson said. "Doing so can go a long way in ensuring people have access to the information they need to make informed decisions regarding their water."

The EPA requires reports contain specific language for consistency in communication; water providers then use EPA-maintained software called CCR-iWriter when preparing these reports. In response, the team recommends that the required language be revised to more effectively benefit service providers in their communications with consumers nationwide.

In a previous study, the team measured report readability and found them to be written at 11th-grade to college undergraduate levels. This is higher than the sixth- to seventh-grade levels recommended for health communications by the National Institutes of Health.

Residents on public water can visit their local water authorities for tours and to ask specific questions about how water is tested, managed, and distributed to homes. The EPA does not regulate private wells, but recommends that those using them have their water tested annually by labs certified to perform drinking water tests.

A university-level Research Institute of Virginia Tech, the Fralin Life Science Institute enables and enhances collaborative efforts in research, education, and outreach within the Virginia Tech life science community through strategic investments that are often allied with colleges, departments, and other institutes.

Written by Cassandra Hockman.

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