River Water Quality

Identifying and assessing emerging contaminant occurrence in drinking water sources

sampling on the Neuse river
Sampling the Neuse river after Hurricane Florence, 2018

The discovery of persistent and potentially toxic polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) such as Gen-X in drinking water in North Carolina and across the country has heightened awareness of the risks posed by emerging pollutants in our public water sources.  It has become clear that emerging contaminants may enter our drinking water supplies from a variety of sources, including industrial and municipal wastewater, stormwater discharge, and agrochemical runoff, among others.  We are applying targeted and non-targeted analysis approaches, based on high-resolution mass spectrometry, to assess the occurrence, sources, and fate of emerging organic contaminants in drinking water sources across the state of North Carolina.

In collaboration with partners at academic institutions across NC, we are currently conducting the nation's largest assessment of PFAS compound occurrence and distribution in surface and groundwater drinking water sources.  This project involves quantitative analysis of > 50 known and qualitative analysis of > 4,000 suspected PFAS compounds in every public drinking water source in the state of NC.  We anticipate that the results of this study will greatly enhance our understanding of PFAS sources and fate in both ground- and surface waters, and will help to design and implement effective treatments for removing these compounds during drinking water treatment.

We have partnered with Riverkeeper organizations across the state to perform systematic non-targeted analysis of emerging pollutants in major river watersheds in NC, including the Haw, Neuse, and Catawba systems.  Our results indicate that a variety of organic pollutants are widespread in the rivers of NC, including wastewater-derived compounds such as artificial sweeteners (e.g. sucralose), pharmaceuticals and personal care products (e.g. sunscreens and pharmaceuticals), surfactants (e.g. polyethylene glycols and related compounds), and tire rubber-related compounds from stormwater (e.g. benzothiazole- and substituted guanidine-based vulcanization accelerants).  Our objective in this study is to assess the primary sources of these compounds to rivers and to assess the potential for them to ultimately enter drinking water supplies.