Drinking-water contaminants pose a risk to public health. When confronted with elevated levels of contaminants, individuals can take actions to reduce exposure. Yet, few studies address averting behavior due to impaired water, particularly in high-income countries. This is a problem of national interest, given that 9 million to 45 million people have been affected by water quality violations in each of the past 34 years. No national analysis has focused on the extent to which communities reduce exposure to contaminated drinking water. Here, we present an assessment that sheds light on how communities across the United States respond to violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, using consumer purchases of bottled water. This study provides insight into how averting behavior differs across violation types and community demographics. We estimate the change in sales due to water quality violations, using a panel dataset of weekly sales and violation records in 2,151 counties from 2006 to 2015. Critical findings show that violations which pose an immediate health risk are associated with a 14% increase in bottled water sales. Generally, greater averting action is taken against contaminants that might pose a greater perceived health risk and that require more immediate public notification. Rural, low-income communities do not take significant averting action for elevated levels of nitrate, yet experience a higher prevalence of nitrate violations. Findings can inform improvements in public notification and targeting of technical assistance from state regulators and public health agencies in order to reduce community exposure to contaminants.
Keywords: drinking water; health; risk reduction; violation; water quality.