The Potomac: America’s River

The Potomac River is one of America’s most iconic waterways.  Founding Father George Washington called it the “Nation’s River” and built his home there.  The 14,670-square mile watershed is a major source of drinking water, as well as a critical habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Potomac River is also one of America’s most polluted waterways.  In the early 2000s, government scientists discovered an alarming number of fish exhibiting external lesions and intersex characteristics.  This indicated the possible presence of endocrine-disrupting compounds from municipal and domestic wastewater, as well as agricultural and industrial activities.

Scientists tested water samples and found four chemical compounds “to be present at every sampled site, including the reference site, and several sites had detectable quantities of other compounds.”

In addition, “antibiotics were detected in municipal wastewater, aquaculture, and poultry processing effluent, with the highest number of antibiotics and the greatest concentrations found in municipal effluent.”

Scientists used an Agilent gas chromatograph, mass-selective detector and capillary column to test for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  They used an Agilent LC/MS equipped with diode array detectors to test for antibiotics.

In 2007, the Potomac Conservatory gave the river an environmental grade of “D+” (one degree above failure).

The good news is that for the past decade, the region has instituted major recovery initiatives, including waste-treatment upgrades and agricultural pollution controls.

As a result, last week the Conservatory issued an updated grade of “B” – its highest grade ever.

“For the first time in generations, we are within reach of enjoying a healthy, thriving Potomac River,” the Conservatory says.  “A river clean enough for anglers to eat their catch and safe enough for children to wade in.  A river that supports verdant forests and abundant wildlife.  Simply put, a river our hometown can take pride in.”

Agilent offers over 40 years of environmental analysis and regulatory expertise.  Our water analysis solutions enable precise, high-throughput analysis of trace compounds in water at very low concentrations.


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