The New Polluters of the Potomac


By H. Hedrick Belin
Silver Spring
Sunday, April 19, 2009

After more than a quarter of a century of Clean Water Act legislation and enforcement, the Washington area’s river and bay waters are nowhere near as healthy as they should be.

The main sources of the impairments are no mystery: sedimentation, agricultural runoff, rainwater running off paved surfaces. But recently, it has come to light that there is more going on in the Potomac River than meets the eye. While we have long tracked traditional pollutants, “Poisoned Waters,” the documentary that will run on PBS’s “Frontline” on Tuesday, highlights a new face in the lineup: chemical compounds that interact with and possibly interfere with the workings of the endocrine system. The endocrine system controls growth, metabolism and reproduction in humans and animals.

This class of pollutants is called “endocrine disruptors.” These compounds are the primary suspect in the mystery of intersex fish that have been found in the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. To date, we know that these compounds disrupt the development of many aquatic species, most notably male smallmouth bass that have developed eggs. This condition has been documented in the Potomac River watershed and beyond. It is becoming a global phenomenon.

Washington area residents get almost 90 percent of their drinking water from the river. Endocrine disruptors may enter our water in many different ways. Chemical-laden runoff from our lawns and roads flows into the river through the storm sewer system. Pharmaceuticals and personal-care products go down our toilets and drains and through the wastewater treatment plant, which does not remove them. Agricultural chemicals wash out of fields and chicken houses and into nearby streams. Drinking-water treatment plants do not treat for these chemicals before the water is delivered to our tap. In short, every place where water and chemicals combine becomes a potential source of endocrine disruptors in our drinking water.

Intersex fish in our rivers are an ominous sign of things to come. We know little about what causes this condition, and we need to know more. The Potomac Conservancy believes that it is time to answer the question of whether and how these compounds affect animal and human health, in particular, the development of our children. We call on the new administration to find — and fund — solutions for this important problem.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke recently on this issue and promised a hard look at solutions. Last week, the agency announced its plan to test more than 67 chemicals contained in pesticides for possible involvement in endocrine processes. That is a promising start, but the compounds that will be studied represent only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in our water that could act as endocrine disruptors. These include a variety of products we all use in our daily lives, including shampoos, hand sanitizers, pharmaceuticals and lawn products.

The new pollutants don’t set our rivers on fire, wash up on our shores or taint our air. As such, they are easy to overlook. We think it’s high time to take a closer look at what is in our river water and our drinking water.

The writer is president of the Potomac Conservancy.