A shift in national policy toward stronger environmental protection began in the United States in about 1970. Conversely, urban land use, population, energy consumption, and vehicle use have increased greatly since then. To assess the effects of these changes on water quality, the U.S. Geological Survey used sediment cores to reconstruct water-quality histories for38 urban and reference lakes across the United States. Cores were age-dated, and concentration profiles of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and chlorinated hydrocarbons were tested statistically. Significant trends in total DDT, p,p???-DDE, and total PCBs were all downward. Trends in chlordane were split evenly between upward and downward, and trends in PAHs were mostly upward. Significant trends did not occur in about one-half of cases tested. Concentrations of p,p???-DDE, p,p???-DDD, and PCBs were about one-half as likely to exceed the probable effect concentration (PEC), a sediment quality guideline, in sediments deposited in the 1990s as in 1965-1975, whereas PAHs were twice as likely to exceed the PEC in the more recently deposited sediments. Concentrations of all contaminants evaluated correlated strongly with urban land use. Upward trends in PAH concentrations, the strong association of PAH with urban settings, and rapid urbanization occurring in the United States suggest that PAHs could surpass chlorinated hydrocarbons in the threat they pose to aquatic biota in urban streams and lakes.