Support for environmental action grows but Americans' belief in environmental "myths" threaten to block progress

National survey shows that public relies on "yesterday's news" to make decisions about the environment

provided by National Environmental Education & Training Foundation



A Sample of Findings from the 1998 NEETF/Roper Report Card:Environmental Myths in America: An Average American View



Environmental Knowledge Questions and the Percentage of Individuals Answering Each Question Correctly

ublic support for environmental protection continues to grow, but a new national survey shows that, despite overwhelming public support and technological and regulatory progress, most Americans' environmental knowledge has failed to keep pace with the realities of today's most pressing environmental concerns. According to the seventh annual National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF) National Report Card on Environmental Attitudes, Knowledge and Behaviors, most Americans rely on outdated or incorrect information when making decisions about the environment and use common myths to guide their behavior on environmental issues.

"While fiercely supportive of efforts to preserve and protect the environment, most Americans are using yesterday's news when making critical decisions about behavior and policy on key environmental issues," said Kevin J. Coyle, President of NEETF. "This dependence on mythology threatens to block progress on important environmental initiatives and renders ineffective many individual actions on behalf of the environment. In an era where most Americans routinely and eagerly engage in behavior intended to protect the environment, it is vital that we debunk these myths so that the public can most effectively address the environmental needs of today."

For the sixth straight year the NEETF/Roper survey shows that the public supports environmental protection on a two to one basis and at much higher rates for water and air quality protection. It also shows with undaunted consistency that Americans believe we can find a balance between our need to protect the environment and to have a healthy economy. In fact, if forced to choose between the two, 69% of the public would choose the environment. In addition, 90% of people engage in at least six of ten individual environmental activities, such as saving electricity, buying "green" products, conserving water, and recycling trash.

The data also show that environmental knowledge contributes to actions to protect the environment. For example, people who know that vehicles are major contributors to carbon monoxide pollution of the atmosphere are 10% more likely to use public transportation when it is available. For people to participate actively in solutions to protect the environment, the gap must be closed between what they believe and what they know.

"Today's environmental threats are more complex and subtle than when rivers were catching on fire in the 1960's from industrial pollution," Coyle added. "Solutions to these new problems must start with a more sophisticated understanding of the issues. Lawmakers, businesses, environmental causes and most of all the public suffer when people don't understand what needs fixing." Coyle noted that 72% of Americans, for example, say that water quality regulation has not gone far enough. Yet just about the same number three out of four people do not know that the leading cause of water pollution is water running off from farm land, parking lots, city streets and lawns.


Mything the point











The 1998 NEETF/Roper national survey data reveals there are many persistent bits of misinformation concerning environmental issues in America. Coyle said, "these myths can stand in the way of addressing some of our most immediate and wide-ranging environmental issues."

Despite this reliance on outdated information, Coyle says other survey results are encouraging. 71% of Americans consider environmental protection vastly more important than economic development (17%), an increase of 8% since 1995. And, fully 85% frequently engage in certain behaviors aimed at preserving the environment.

"The good news is that an educated public will take action," Coyle said. "Continued education on environmental issues will result in more effective efforts to protect the environment."

Coyle noted that, "many of the environmental myths revealed by the Roper Survey were once true, but conditions have changed." For example, industrial waste dumping was once the leading cause of water pollution, but today run-off pollution, a direct result of actions by individuals and small businesses, is the major source of polluted streams, rivers and lakes. Influenced by powerful images of birds and other animals entangled in beverage six-pack rings, 56% of Americans identify these plastic rings as the number one cause of wild animal entanglement. Just 10% of Americans know that fishing lines left by anglers are by far the major source of wildlife entanglement.

According to Coyle, the NEETF/Roper survey shows that the majority of Americans 57% think the leading cause of oil pollution in our rivers and streams is spills from tankers and offshore drilling. The reality is that individuals are responsible for more oil dumping than industry. "Given their widespread support for environmental preservation," said Coyle, "most Americans would take action if they knew that changing their car oil and dumping it on the ground or in storm drains is the major cause of oil pollution today."

The survey, commissioned by NEETF and conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide, is based on interviews with a representative sample of 2,000 American adults, ages 18 and older. The survey found that when presented with 11 questions that each contained a "myth" answer, two plausible but incorrect answers, and a correct answer, the myth response received a plurality in six cases. For five of the eleven questions, a majority of Americans gave the incorrect myth answer.

  Copies of the NEETF/Roper Starch Survey may be purchased from the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF), 734 15th St., NW #420, Washington, DC 20005 or you can call (202) 628-8200 x3.

 A Sample of Findings from the 1998 NEETF/Roper Report Card:Environmental Myths in America: An Average American View


MYTH: Environmentally damaging aerosol cans

  Just 35% of Americans know that the only sources of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are air conditioners and refrigerators. 67% of Americans don't know this is the only remaining source. Despite the fact that the use of CFCs in spray cans has been banned in the U.S. since 1978, 32% of Americans still think the source of CFCs is aerosol spray cans.


MYTH: Diaper-clogged landfills?

  77% of Americans don't know the greatest source of landfill materials, with a plurality (29%) believing that disposable diapers are the largest source. Just 23% understand that the vast amount of paper products we send to our landfills is the greatest source of landfill material.


MYTH: Bottled water routinely tested by government

  A 51% majority of Americans assume that bottled water is regularly tested for safety and purity by some government agency. Just 42% of Americans understand that there is no requirement that bottled water be tested by any government entity.


MYTH: Wild animals snared in beverage six-pack rings

  90% of Americans don't know the leading cause of wildlife entanglement. Fully 56% of Americans identify beverage six-pack rings as the number one cause. Just 10% of Americans know that fishing lines left out by anglers when they snag or break is the leading cause of wildlife entanglement.


MYTH: Tested-safe industrial and Household chemicals

  65% of Americans assume that a federal agency is screening household and workplace chemicals for safety. Just 27% understand that industrial and household chemicals are not routinely tested by the U.S. EPA or any other federal agency.


MYTH: Main source of oil pollution: tankers, oil rigs and refineries

  84% of Americans don't know the main source of oil in our rivers, lakes and bays, with a 57% majority believing the leading source of oil pollution is ships, offshore drilling or coastal refineries. Just 16% know that Americans changing their car oil and disposing of it improperly-down the sink, in the storm drain, or on the ground-is the main source of oil pollution today.


MYTH: America enjoys pollution-free power production

  73% of Americans don't know how most electricity is generated in the United States, with some 55% of Americans believing our electricity is produced in non air-polluting ways (hydropower, solar power). A plurality (38%) believes hydroelectric power accounts for most of our electricity production. Just 27% know that burning oil, coal and wood accounts for 70% of our nation's electricity production.


MYTH: Factories are the leading cause of water pollution

  78% of Americans don't know the most common cause of pollution in streams, rivers and oceans, with nearly half believing that factories are the leading cause of water pollution today. While once true, just 22% of Americans know that run-off pollution-precipitation running off farm field, roads, parking lots and other land areas-is now our leading water quality problem.


MYTH: Safe underground storage for spent nuclear fuel

  83% of Americans don't know what we currently do with spent nuclear fuel, which is dangerous for at least 10,000 years. A plurality (34%) believe spent fuel from nuclear power plants is safely placed in a deep underground facility in the West. Just 17% of Americans know that we store spent nuclear fuel at the power plant and monitor it pending the development of a long-term solution.


MYTH: Worldwide famine is the leading cause of childhood death

  91% of Americans don't know the leading cause of childhood death worldwide. A 55% majority of Americans believe that malnutrition and starvation from famine is the leading cause. Just 9% of Americans know that the number one cause of childhood death is microorganisms in the world's drinking water supply.  

Environmental Knowledge Questions and the Percentage of Individuals Answering Each Question Correctly


Content of Environmental Percentage Who Answered Knowledge Question Question Correctly

The most common source of water pollution 23%

How most electricity in the U.S. is generated 33%

Definition of biodiversity 40%

The primary benefit of wetlands 53%

Protection provided by ozone in upper atmosphere 57%

Disposal of nuclear waste in the U.S. 58%

Recognition of a renewable resource 66%

Knowledge about materials considered hazardous waste 67%

The largest source of carbon monoxide (air pollution) in U.S. 69%

The most common reason for extinction of animal and plant species 73%

Environmental Protection Agency is primary federal agency

that works to protect environment 74%

Where most household garbage ends up 83%

Percentages are based on the full sample of 1501 and are rounded to the nearest whole number