Most Americans (74 percent) have directly experienced environmentally-related air, water or food problems, or know of problems that have affected relatives, and almost one in four (23 percent) say they know someone whose health was harmed due to an environmental problem, according to a new national survey funded and released by Health-Track, a national public health organization,

The survey of registered voters was conducted April 20-30, 2000, among 1,565 men and women nationwide by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Results show:

  • Nearly all Americans (90 percent) say environmental factors like pollution, waste and chemicals are important contributors to diseases.

  • People think exposure to the following health hazards is very or somewhat serious:

    Toxic waste — 79 percent

    Drinking water (with harmful chemicals) — 78 percent

    Air pollution — 75 percent

    Water pollution — 74 percent

    Food treated with pesticides — 70 percent

  • Americans believe that environmental factors play a major or minor role in causing the following diseases:

    Asthma — 84 percent

    Birth defects — 78 percent

    Childhood cancers like leukemia — 71 percent

    Breast cancer — 64 percent

  • Eighty-nine percent of Americans think the government should make reducing the number of illnesses caused by environmental hazards a top or important priority.

  • Sixty-eight percent mistakenly believe that the government already has a national system in place to monitor chronic diseases like asthma, childhood cancer and birth defects and their links to environmental hazards, or are not sure if the government is doing so.

"These numbers tell a very clear story," said Jim O’Hara, executive director of Health-Track. "People are concerned about environmental causes of chronic disease and believe their elected officials should do more to track chronic diseases and their links to environmental hazards."

These survey results come at a time when chronic diseases like asthma and some major birth defects are on the rise. Chronic disease is the number one killer in the U.S., accounting for three of every four deaths each year. About 100 million Americans, more than one-third of the U.S. population, suffer from some form of chronic disease. The annual cost of chronic disease is estimated at $325 billion, according to Health-Track.