Emerging Contaminants: Help Keep Them Out of Our Water!

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Spring 2009)

A 2002 nationwide study by the U.S. Geological Survey (http://toxics.usgs.gov/pubs/FS-027-02/index.html) determined that certain organic chemical contaminants, including pharmaceuticals and hormones, are finding their way into our rivers and streams. Common residential, industrial and agricultural chemicals were detected in trace amounts in 80 percent of the water bodies sampled for the study. These chemicals enter our streams and rivers primarily through wastewater.

Steroids, non-prescription drugs and insect repellents were the most commonly identified groups of contaminants. Caffeine, disinfectants and detergents were also frequently found. Detergents, steroids and plasticizers, chemicals that are used to increase the fluidity of concrete, wallboard and plastics, were measured at the greatest concentrations.

Generally, these emerging contaminants occur in our rivers and streams at very low concentrations. In Fairfax County, our drinking water and wastewater treatment processes remove some of these chemicals. A March 2008 statement by Fairfax Water (http://fairfaxwater.org/current/sp ecial_statement_030808.htm) indicates that there is no evidence that these chemicals pose a drinking water-related human health concern.

However, the health effects of these emerging contaminants are still being investigated. A 2008 USGS study of contaminants in drinking water found that several of these chemicals, notably cholesterol, the herbicide metachlor, and cotinine, a substance produced by the body’s metabolism of nicotine, are present in municipal drinking water supplies. Scientists are undertaking studies to determine if emerging water contaminants, in combination with each other and at observed concentrations, could pose a health risk.

What can you do to help?

Fight the urge to flush unused medicines! Dispose of unwanted medicines properly.

  • Keep the medicines in their original container.
  • Cross out your name and prescription number to protect your identity.
  • For pills, add some salt water to the vial. For liquids add an absorbent, inedible substance like cat litter, dirt or ash.
  • Seal the container and secure with duct or packing tape.
  • Put the container in your trash!
Unwanted medicines should be thrown in a trash can
Unwanted medicines should not be flushed down the toilet

Replace toxic cleaning products with non-toxic alternatives.

Recipes for non-toxic homemade cleaning products are available on-line from the Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit Ecocycle at http://www.ecocycle.org/hazwaste/ecofriendly-cleaning.

Limit herbicide and pesticide use.

Rather than reaching for that chemical spray, use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to tackling weeds and unwanted pests around the yard and in the home. IPM limits chemical use by combining physical, biological and least-toxic chemical methods to achieve an environmentally-sound solution to pest problems. Visit the University of California at Davis’ web site (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/index.html) to find out how to avoid use of toxins in your home and landscape.

More information on chemicals and drugs in the water is available at on-line from Fairfax County at http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/opa/che micals_drugs_water.htm.

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