Chemicals and Drugs in the Water
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:
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:
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
- 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.
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:
Drugs for humans and animals
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:
The county uses advanced processes to
treat wastewater. These can remove some of the chemicals and
drugs being found in rivers and streams.
The county is closely following research on this issue, and the
county has asked the state to conduct studies.
- The county supports regional efforts to monitor for chemicals in the Potomac. We are working with water utilities, sewage treatment plants and others across the region. This includes working with the regional monitoring committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.