Emerging Water Quality Issues
Fairfax Water’s Monitoring
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.
To go directly to a specific answer. Click on the question in the list below:
To see monitoring results click the graphic below:
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
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. You can view the results by clicking here.
What have you found?
As expected, we found trace amounts of a few compounds in our source and
the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir. View the results by clicking here.
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
Fairfax Water believes that more research is needed to understand fully
the implications of trace amounts of EDCs and PPCPs in water. You can
learn more about the research efforts Fairfax Water supports by
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.
1. Keep the medicines in their original container. This will help identify the
contents if they are accidentally ingested.
2. Cross out your name and prescription number for safety.
3. For pills: add some salt water to start dissolving them. For liquids: add
something inedible like cat litter, dirt or ash.
4. Seal the container and secure with duct or packing tape.
5. 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, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/hd/dontflush/ or
call the Fairfax County Health Department at 703-246-2411, TTY 711. Information
is also available on the Environmental Protection Agency Web site at www.epa.gov/ppcp/ 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
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
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
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: