Chemicals and Drugs in the Water

Water Faucets

Types of Chemicals Found Nationwide

These kinds of chemicals and drugs have been found in 139 streams in 30 states, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey:

  • Caffeine

  • Prescription drugs

  • Mosquito repellants, like DEET

  • Antibacterial disinfectants in soap

  • Fragrances in soaps and perfumes

  • Fire retardants

  • Pesticides and herbicides

Scientists use a variety of names for this group of chemicals and drugs, including: emerging contaminants, endocrine disrupting compounds, personal care products and pharmaceuticals or micro-constituents.

Chemicals Found in the Potomac River

More than 10 chemicals and drugs have been found in the Potomac and its tributaries:

  • Tonalide, glaxolide — fragrances in soaps and perfumes

  • Chlorpyrifos, endosulfan — insecticides

  • Atrazine, metolachlor — herbicides

  • 2,2',4,4'-tetra-bromo-diphenyl ether —flame retardant

  • Erythromycin, Ciprofloxacin— antibiotics

This information comes from a 2006 study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Trace amounts of commonly used chemicals and drugs are being found in rivers and streams. Fairfax County is concerned about reports, just as residents may be.

Some of these chemicals are removed from our wastewater, and our drinking water is even more highly treated.

What You Should Know

  • Scientists are studying whether these chemicals cause health effects and at what amounts.

  • These chemicals and drugs are only being found in very small amounts — parts per billion or trillion. For comparison, one part per trillion is equal to one second in 32,000 years.

  • Our drinking water is treated with advanced processes, and it is tested to detect for these small amounts of chemicals and drugs. Our water meets all health and quality standards.

  • We don’t know what chemicals and drugs to remove because we’re just learning what’s in our rivers and streams. Scientists also don’t know which chemicals may be harmful and at what amounts.

What You Can Do

Our drinking water and wastewater are treated, but you can help.

  • Throw unused or unwanted medicines in the trash. Unless specifically directed by the label, don’t flush them down the toilet. Medicines that are flushed can end up in rivers and streams.

  • Don’t use pesticides and herbicides if possible. These chemicals can wash off lawns and yards into streams and rivers. Learn what to do instead by watching this short video. Watch Video

  • Don’t pour pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals into storm drains because they can end up in streams and rivers. To learn what to do, watch this short video. Watch Video

Why Is There a A Concern?

Ongoing studies are looking at whether these chemicals may harm fish and other wildlife. These chemicals may affect their hormone systems that control growth and reproduction. For instance, the U.S. Geological Survey has found “intersex” fish in the Potomac. These are male fish with female eggs in their sex organs.

Scientists are studying if these chemicals cause human health effects and at what amounts. But more research is needed, along with new federal rules.

Why Didn’t We Know About These Chemicals in the Water Before?

Better tests now allow scientists to find these chemicals and drugs in smaller amounts. Scientists also were not looking for them because many are not regulated by drinking or other water quality laws. Tests are being developed to measure these unregulated chemicals in the water.

Where Do These Chemicals and Drugs Come From?

Everyday household and agricultural products:

  • Soap
  • Shampoo
  • Plastics
  • Drugs for humans and animals
  • Fertilizers
  • Insecticides
  • Herbicides

What Amounts Are Being Found?

Scientists are finding chemicals and drugs in the water at parts per billion or trillion. For comparison, one part per trillion is equal to one second in 32,000 years.

What is the Federal Government Doing?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying the effects of these chemicals, and it is also trying to create standards for how to test for them in the water. The EPA is responsible for setting standards and regulations, but they have not come up with any yet. Safety standards are needed so local and state governments know what chemicals to remove.  

What is Fairfax County Doing?

Federal rules are needed, but Fairfax County is taking action:


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