- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

A nonprofit organization that monitors the health of the Potomac River said Wednesday that a condition causing abnormalities in fish should serve as an urgent warning to rehabilitate the waterway that provides 90 percent of the D.C. area’s drinking water.

The Potomac Conservancy in its third annual State of the Nation’s River report highlighted a number of pollutants in the Potomac River that disrupt the endocrine system in humans and in fish and contribute to a condition in which some fish exhibit both male and female traits.

John Peterson Myers, a Charlottesville-based biologist who founded the research group Environmental Health Sciences, said endocrine-disrupting compounds are major pollutants in the Potomac watershed that are not effectively neutralized when water is treated.

“Water-treatment facilities are not yet required to screen for endocrine-disrupting contaminants, so they end up in our tap water,” he said.

“We aren’t sure exactly what level of exposure causes harmful effects to human health, but if the intersex-fish phenomenon is any indication, there’s a critical need for regulatory agencies and decision makers to start addressing this issue,” he said.

Members of the Potomac Conservancy said the chemicals get into the river though runoff from industrial plants,farms and even private yards where chemicals are used.

The chemicals are found in pesticides, veterinary products, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and animal waste. The report said it was not a single chemical but a mixture of chemicals that was causing the effect, and the kinds of chemicals depend on the area.

The group pointed to research showing that 80 percent of fish studied in the Potomac River exhibit the intersex condition.

H. Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy, says its findings are a “canary in the coal mine.”

“The federal government has already taken steps to limit so-called “legacy” pollutants from damaging the natural environment and human health,” Mr. Belin said. “It now needs to employ 21st-century scientific testing and update the regulatory framework to deal with the emerging threat of endocrine-disrupting compounds found in the Potomac River and its tributaries.”

Mr. Myers said the technology used to test water for endocrine-disrupting compounds is outdated and that there are currently no water-quality standards that pertain to the contaminants.

“The tools we have depended on to tell us what is safe and what is not have proven to be completely inadequate,” Mr. Myers said. “We need to bring toxicology into the 21st century.”