Pharmaceuticals used in animal feeding operations have been detected in various environmental settings. There is a growing concern about the impact on terrestrial and aquatic organisms and the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of microorganisms. Pharmaceutical use in milking cows is relatively limited compared with other livestock operations, except for the ionophore monensin, which is given to lactating cows as a feed. By weight, monensin can be the most significant antibiotic used in a dairy farm. This study investigates the potential of monensin to move from dairy operations into the surrounding ground water. Using two dairy farms in California as study sites, we twice collected samples along the environmental pathway-from flush lanes, lagoon waters, and shallow ground water beneath the dairies and beneath its associated manured fields. Monensin concentrations were determined using solid-phase extraction and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry with positive electrospray ionization. Monensin was detected in all of the flush lane and lagoon water samples. Theoretical maximum concentration estimated from the actual dosing rate and the theoretical excretion rate assuming no attenuation was one order of magnitude greater than observed concentrations, suggesting significant attenuation in the manure collection and storage system. Monensin was also detected, at levels ranging from 0.04 to 0.39 microg L(-1), in some of the ground water samples underneath the production area of the dairy but not from the adjacent manured fields. Concentrations in ground water immediately downgradient of the lagoons were one to two orders of magnitude lower than the concentrations detected in lagoons, suggesting attenuation in the subsurface. The data suggest the possibility of monensin transport into shallow (2-5 m) alluvial ground water from dairy management units, including manure storage lagoons and freestalls occupied by heifers, lactating cows, and dry cows.