Open Access Research article

Public perceptions of drinking water: a postal survey of residents with private water supplies

Andria Q Jones1*, Catherine E Dewey2, Kathryn Doré23, Shannon E Majowicz23, Scott A McEwen2, Waltner-Toews David2, Mathews Eric4, Deborah J Carr4 and Spencer J Henson5

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Community Health, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland, A1B 3V6, Canada

2 Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Road West, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1, Canada

3 Foodborne, Waterborne and Zoonotic Infections Division, Public Health Agency of Canada, 160 Research Lane, Suite 206 Guelph, Ontario, N1G 5B2, Canada

4 City of Hamilton Public Health and Community Services, 1 Hughson Street North, Hamilton, Ontario, L8R 3L5, Canada

5 Department of Agricultural Economics and Business, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Road West, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2006, 6:94  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-6-94

Published: 11 April 2006



In Canada, the legal responsibility for the condition of private water supplies, including private wells and cisterns, rests with their owners. However, there are reports that Canadians test these water supplies intermittently and that treatment of such water is uncommon. An estimated 45% of all waterborne outbreaks in Canada involve non-municipal systems. An understanding of the perceptions and needs of Canadians served by private water supplies is essential, as it would enable public health professionals to better target public education and drinking water policy. The purpose of this study was to investigate the public perceptions of private water supplies in the City of Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), with the intent of informing public education and outreach strategies within the population.


A cross-sectional postal survey of 246 residences with private water supplies was conducted in May 2004. Questions pertained to the perceptions of water quality and alternative water sources, water testing behaviours and the self-identified need for further information.


Private wells, cisterns or both, were the source of household water for 71%, 16% and 13% of respondents, respectively. Although respondents rated their water quality highly, 80% also had concerns with its safety. The most common concerns pertained to bacterial and chemical contamination of their water supply and its potential negative effect on health. Approximately 56% and 61% of respondents used in-home treatment devices and bottled water within their homes, respectively, mainly due to perceived improvements in the safety and aesthetic qualities compared to regular tap water. Testing of private water supplies was performed infrequently: 8% of respondents tested at a frequency that meets current provincial guidelines. Two-thirds of respondents wanted more information on various topics related to private water supplies. Flyers and newspapers were the two media reported most likely to be used.


Although respondents rated their water quality highly, the majority had concerns regarding the water from their private supply, and the use of bottled water and water treatment devices was extensive. The results of this study suggest important lines of inquiry and provide support and input for public education programs, particularly those related to private water testing, in this population.