Toxic Waste: Still Dirty Words to Americans?

by Raksha Arora, Finance and Commerce Editor

Since 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been assessing and helping clean up "Superfund" sites -- areas dangerously contaminated by hazardous waste -- across the United States. Over the last decade, Superfund's budget has been cut by 35% and the number of cleanups has declined dramatically since 2000. Discussions about the program's future and the status of Superfund sites across the nation have been marked by partisan finger-pointing. Congressional efforts -- as recent as last month -- to reinstate the taxes levied on petroleum and chemical companies to fund the EPA program have been unsuccessful so far.

With many Americans living within miles of a Superfund site, are Americans concerned about toxic waste contamination of their soil and water? Gallup's annual Environmental poll, conducted in March 2004*, provides the answer.

Americans Less Worried

Environmental activists may believe that not enough is being done to keep soil and water clean, and Gallup's poll on the environment suggests that many Americans may think that way, too. Seventy-four percent of Americans are worried "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about toxic waste contamination and it ranks among the top four of their environmental concerns. However, as has been the case with concern about other environmental problems, Americans seem to be less concerned about this particular problem than they have in the past. In April 2000, 64% of Americans worried a great deal about this problem, but in March 2004, only 48% voiced the same degree of concern.

This is the first time since Gallup asked this question in 1989 that less than half of respondents said they worry a great deal about contamination of soil and water by toxic waste. The drop in concern about toxic waste contamination mirrors similar drops in concern about most other environmental issues included in the Gallup Poll. Of the 10 environmental issues that Gallup included in its March 2004 survey, concern has dropped significantly since last year on six. (See "Global Warming on Public's Back Burner" in Related Items.)

The Geography of Concern

Given the high concentration of Superfund sites and the high-profile contamination cases in the eastern United States, it's not surprising that Easterners tend to worry a little more about contamination than those in the West, Midwest, and South do. Eighty-five percent of Easterners worry "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about toxic waste contamination of their soil and water, compared with 72% of those in the Midwest, 68% in the South, and 69% of those in the West.

It also appears that the income of respondents plays a role in their level of concern. Concern is highest among those with annual incomes of $30,000 or less, and declines as household incomes increase. However, those in lower-income groups are more likely than those in higher-income groups to worry a great deal about environmental issues in general.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 8-11, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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