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Public perceptions of drinking water risk : a community perspective Yim, Yolanda

Abstract

The events of Walkerton made it clear that important changes were necessary to address the safety of our drinking water. Most provinces have since passed new legislation to prevent such tragedies from happening again. There is a need, however, to consider matters from a public perspective if implementation of forthcoming regulations is to be successful. How do people think about drinking water risks? How do they understand its safety? What is the basis of their perceptions? This study addresses these questions from the perspective of a rural community at odds with provincial authorities over the issue of water chlorination. Its specific objectives are to (f) characterize one community's perceptions of drinking water risks and (if) explore the basis of many resident's aversion to chlorine. Three main concepts are explored: mtiritiw toxicology (specifically how people think about the concept of microbial pathogen dose), trust in various levels of authority responsible for managing drinking water, and sense cf place (a summation of people's identification with and attachment to place). A combination of both interview and survey methods were used in this study. Results from the survey were analyzed using SPSS (version 10.0) and form the bulk of the data presented in this study. Results from the survey indicate most respondents' were tolerant toward small amounts of microbial contaminants (indicating sensitivity to microbial pathogen dose). No relationship was found between these views and chlorine aversion, however, suggesting that the reasons behind the chlorine controversy did not revolve primarily around health concerns. Aversion to chlorine was most strongly linked to lack of trust in expert and provincial authorities, in conjunction with increased concerns about resource development. Review of the interview data revealed many residents believed there to be a connection between government interests in logging and the order to disinfect the local water supply. 'Sense of place' played a moderate role in deteirnining both aversion to chlorine and increased tolerance toward microbial contaminants. Disagreements between governments and communities over drinking water can go beyond debates about specific health risks to encompass broader social concerns. These concerns were very real to the citizens of this community, yet perhaps were not adequately recognized as such by provincial authorities.

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