While Fairfax Water does not have all of the answers about how and why certain compounds are in the source waters (the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir), we do try to answer some of the questions about what we have found, what we have not found, and what we are doing about it. Working with regional and national partners, Fairfax Water has developed a testing plan for emerging contaminants such as Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs), Pharmaceuticals, and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) in source and treated waters. We hope you find the discussion below helpful.
What are EDCs and PPCPs?
Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs) are chemicals that interfere with the action of natural hormones responsible for reproduction, development, and/or behavior of an organism.
- Examples – pesticides; and natural and synthetic hormones
Pharmaceuticals (P), simply put, are medications.
- Examples – antibiotics; heart, cancer, and anti-epileptic medications; livestock food additives
Personal Care Products (PCPs) are common household compounds.
- Examples – shampoos, bug spray, sun screen
How do you know what to test?
There are tens of thousands of compounds that are considered EDCs or PPCPs. It is impossible to test for all of them. Fairfax Water carefully researches a suitable list of compounds. We look at influences in the Potomac and Occoquan River Watersheds (industrial, agricultural uses, etc.) to determine which compounds are most likely to be present. We then look at our treatment process to determine which compounds will not be readily removed through treatment. Finally, we look at which compounds can be measured in water. This process gives us a list of compounds that are most likely to be present. Because the science is ever-changing, Fairfax Water periodically reviews this process and updates the compounds to be tested based on new technologies and research findings.
What compounds are tested?
You can view the compounds that are tested and see the results by clicking the graphic below:
Do you test the drinking water?
Yes. We test both the source water (the Potomac River and the Occoquan Reservoir) and the drinking water (the water delivered to homes and businesses). Samples are sent to an independent laboratory skilled in this type of analysis.
What have you found?
As expected, we found trace amounts of a few compounds in our source and drinking waters, the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir.
What does "trace amount" mean?
The compounds detected were found at the part per billion and part per trillion levels. The ability to test compounds in water to these minute levels is relatively new. A part per billion is equivalent to 1 gallon of water in 1,514 Olympic size swimming pools. A part per trillion is equivalent to 1 gallon of water in 1,514,570 Olympic size swimming pools.
The analytical methods used in this study have very low detection levels—typically 100 to 1,000 times lower than State and Federal standards and guidelines for protecting drinking water quality. Detections, therefore, do not necessarily indicate a concern to human health but rather help to identify the environmental presence of a wide variety of chemicals not commonly monitored in water resources. These findings complement ongoing drinking-water monitoring required by Federal and State regulations.
What is Fairfax Water doing?
Fairfax Water provides highly advanced treatment for the water we serve our customers. A study conducted by the Water Research Foundation concluded that using a combination of ozone and granular activated carbon is very effective in removing broad categories of EDCs, personal care products and pharmaceuticals. Fairfax Water uses both ozone and granular activated carbon at both of its treatment plants as part of its multi-barrier water treatment approach that also includes coagulation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection.
Fairfax Water believes that more research is needed to understand fully the implications of trace amounts of EDCs and PPCPs in water.
As we continue to develop better methods for detection, we will be able to identify more compounds at lower levels. While these compounds may be detected at very low levels in water, people regularly consume or expose themselves to products containing these compounds in much higher concentrations through medicines, food and beverage and other sources. The level in which they are found in water is very small in comparison and does not mean the substance is harmful to humans.
What can I do to help?
Dispose of medications in the trash instead of flushing them, except when specifically instructed by the label. If you flush medications, they can end up in our rivers and streams. To help protect our environment, throw unused, unwanted or expired over-the-counter and prescription medicines in the trash.
The American Pharmacists Association recommends steps for safely disposing of pills and liquids in the trash. These steps will help prevent their misuse or accidental ingestion by children or pets.
- Keep the medicines in their original container. This will help identify the contents if they are accidentally ingested.
- Cross out your name and prescription number for safety.
- For pills: add some salt water to start dissolving them. For liquids: add something inedible like cat litter, dirt or ash.
- Seal the container and secure with duct or packing tape.
- Put the container in the trash as close to pickup time as possible. Do not put in the recycle bin.
For more information and updates about medication disposal, click here or call the Fairfax County Health Department at 703-246-2411, TTY 711. Information is also available on the Environmental Protection Agency website at or by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791, TTY 711.
Fairfax Water, along with other water utilities regionally and nationally, is working to advance the science in the area of understanding and treating EDCs and PPCPs in water.
- Fairfax Water, along with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Washington Aqueduct, founded the Potomac Partnership to study water quality issues in the Potomac watershed.
- Fairfax Water, along with many water utilities across the nation, has contributed to and participated with the Water Research Foundation to study endocrine disruptors, personal care product and pharmaceuticals. As of October 2010, the Water Research Foundation has completed more than 21 projects and is currently conducting more than 25 additional projects worth approximately $16.5 million.
- Fairfax Water will continue to work with regional and national partners to advance the science regarding these issues.
- The issue is also being studied at the national level. There is an established process in place within the appropriate federal agencies to provide further guidance to water utilities on testing and treating for emerging contaminants.
Do you want to see the detailed data?
You can view the actual numerical results of the monitoring program. To view the results, click on the year below: