Viruses are worrying, but not as much as pollution


What do Italians believe will be the most serious threats to health in the next few years? Have the recent alarms concerning viruses and pandemics significantly impacted on public opinion?

According to data collected by Science in Society Monitor, the fear of epidemics caused by new viruses is still high (23.8% of interviewees considered them to be the most serious health threat for the near future). But such epidemics cause less concern than long-period risks like air pollution in cities, which ranks first in the classification of worries for almost four Italians in ten (39.1%). Moreover, for at least fifteen years, air quality has consistently occupied first place in Italians’ perceptions of the main risks to their health.

According to Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Trento, and one of the speakers at the Sixth World Conference on the Future of Science which concluded today in Venice, these data demonstrate that more realistic consideration should be made of the role of information on these issues. “Notwithstanding the enormous coverage by the media of episodes like swine flu and the previous pandemics, the public still seems to perceive latent and long-term risks like air pollution as being more concrete. They do so even though environmental risks like those connected with air quality rarely have dramatic impacts (victims, patients) compared with those of virus emergencies or epidemics”.

Another widely perceived potential source of danger to the health is climate change, which especially worried around one interviewee in every four (24.4%). Finally, just over one in ten Italians (11.7%) regards the spread of GMO foods as the most serious risk for the years to come. Graduates were the least worried about pandemics and viruses. Higher-educated interviewees, in fact, were more concerned about the risks represented by air pollution and less alarmed by the possible spread of GM foods, which worried only 4.9% of them.

The results of the Science in Society survey were presented on the occasion of the Sixth World Conference on The Future of Science held in Venice.

Since 2002, the Science in Society Monitor has been the first permanent observatory on the attitudes of Italian public opinion towards research and technological innovation. The observatory is an initiative of Observa Science in Society, with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo.

The Monitor conducts a CATI-based survey on a sample of 985 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, representative of the Italian population aged over 15.

Observa Science in Society is an independent non-profit, and legally recognized research centre promoting study and discussion of the interaction among science, technology and society with the purpose of fostering dialogue among researchers, policy-makers and citizens.