Organic contaminants and trace elements were measured in bed sediments collected from streams in seven metropolitan study areas across the United States to assess concentrations in relation to urbanization. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides, the pyrethroid insecticide bifenthrin, and several trace elements were significantly related to urbanization across study areas. Most contaminants (except bifenthrin, chromium, nickel) were significantly related to the total organic carbon (TOC) content of the sediments. Regression models explained 45–80 % of the variability in individual contaminant concentrations using degree of urbanization, sediment-TOC, and study-area indicator variables (which represent the combined influence of unknown factors, such as chemical use or release, that are not captured by available explanatory variables). The significance of one or more study-area indicator variables in all models indicates marked differences in contaminant levels among some study areas, even after accounting for the nationally modeled effects of urbanization and sediment-TOC. Mean probable effect concentration quotients (PECQs) were significantly related to urbanization. Trace elements were the major contributors to mean PECQs at undeveloped sites, whereas organic contaminants, especially bifenthrin, were the major contributors at highly urban sites. Pyrethroids, where detected, accounted for the largest share of the mean PECQ. Part 2 of this series (Kemble et al. 2012) evaluates sediment toxicity to amphipods and midge in relation to sediment chemistry.