Chloroform and three other trihalomethanes (THMs)--bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform--are disinfection by-products commonly produced during the chlorination of water and wastewater. Samples of untreated ground water from drinking-water supply wells (1,096 public and 2,400 domestic wells) were analyzed for THMs and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during 1986-2001, or compiled, as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. This report provides a summary of potential sources of THMs and of the occurrence and geographical distribution of THMs in samples from public and domestic wells. Evidence for an anthropogenic source of THMs and implications for future research also are presented.
Potential sources of THMs to both public and domestic wells include the discharge of chlorinated drinking water and wastewater that may be intentional or inadvertent. Intentional discharge includes the use of municipally supplied chlorinated water to irrigate lawns, golf courses, parks, gardens, and other areas; the use of septic systems; or the regulated discharge of chlorinated wastewater to surface waters or ground-water recharge facilities. Inadvertent discharge includes leakage of chlorinated water from swimming pools, spas, or distribution systems for drinking water or wastewater sewers. Statistical analyses indicate that population density, the percentage of urban land, and the number of Resource Conservation and Recovery Act hazardous-waste facilities near sampled wells are significantly associated with the probability of detection of chloroform, especially for public wells. Domestic wells may have several other sources of THMs, including the practice of well disinfection through shock chlorination, laundry wastewater containing bleach, and septic system effluent.
Chloroform was the most frequently detected VOC in samples from drinking-water supply wells (public and domestic wells) in the United States. Although chloroform was detected frequently in samples from public and domestic wells and the other THMs were detected in some samples, no concentrations in samples from either well type exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Maximum Contaminant Level of 80 micrograms per liter for total THMs. Chloroform was detected in public well samples almost twice as frequently (11 percent) as in domestic well samples (5 percent). The other three THMs also were detected more frequently in public well samples than in domestic well samples. This detection pattern may be attributed to public wells having a higher pumping capacity than domestic wells. The higher capacity wells create a larger capture zone that potentially intercepts more urban and other land uses and associated point and nonpoint sources of contamination than the smaller capacity domestic wells.
THM detection frequencies in domestic well samples show a pattern of decreasing frequency with increasing bromide content, that is in the order: chloroform > bromodichloromethane >= dibromochloromethane >= bromoform. This same pattern has been documented in studies of water chlorination, indicating that an important source of chloroform and other THMs in drinking-water supply wells may be the recycling of chlorinated water and wastewater. Mixtures of THMs commonly occur in public well samples, and the most frequently occurring are combinations of the brominated THMs. These THMs have limited industrial production, few natural sources, and small or no reported direct releases to the environment. Therefore, industrial, commercial, or natural sources are not likely sources of the brominated THMs in public and domestic well samples. The THM detection frequency pattern, the co-occurrence of brominated THMs, and other lines of evidence indicate that the recycling of water with a history of chlorination is an important source of these compounds in samples from drinking-water supply wells.