Water-quality data collected from 1,426 wells during 1993-2003 as part of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program were evaluated to characterize the water quality in glacial and bedrock aquifers of the northern United States. One of the goals of the NAWQA program is to synthesize data from individual studies across the United States to gain regional- and national-scale information about the behavior of contaminants. This study focused on the regional occurrence and distribution of uranium and 222radon in ground water in the glacial aquifer system of the United States as well as in the Cambrian-Ordovician and the New York and New England crystalline aquifer systems that underlie the glacial aquifer system. The occurrence of uranium and 222radon in ground water has long been a concern throughout the United States. In the glacial aquifers, as well as the Cambrian-Ordovician and the New York and New England crystalline aquifer systems of the United States, concentrations of uranium and 222radon were highly variable. High concentrations of uranium and 222radon affect ground water used for drinking water and for agriculture.
A combination of information or data on (1) national-scale ground-water regions, (2) regional-scale glacial depositional models, (3) regional-scale geology, and (4) national-scale terrestrial gamma-ray emissions were used to confirm and(or) refine the regions used in the analysis of the water-chemistry data. Significant differences in the occurrence of uranium and 222radon, based primarily on geologic information were observed and used in this report. In general, uranium was highest in the Columbia Plateau glacial, West-Central glacial, and the New York and New England crystalline aquifer groups (75th percentile concentrations of 22.3, 7.7, and 2.9 micrograms per liter (ug/L), respectively). In the Columbia Plateau glacial and the West-Central glacial aquifer groups, more than 10 percent of wells sampled had concentrations of uranium that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum Contaminant Level of 30 ug/L; in the New York and New England crystalline aquifer group, 4 percent exceeded 30 ug/L.
Ground-water samples with high concentrations of uranium were commonly linked to geologic sources rich in uranium. In eight of nine aquifer groups defined for this study, concentrations of uranium correlated significantly with concentrations of sulfate in ground water (Spearman's rho = 0.20 to 0.56; p < 0.05). In the Columbia Plateau, glacial aquifers were derived in part from basaltic lava flows, some felsic volcanic rocks, and some paleo-lake bed materials that may be rich in uranium. In the Columbia Plateau and West-Central glacial aquifer groups, uranium correlated with total dissolved solids, bicarbonate, boron, lithium, selenium, and strontium. In the West-Central glacial aquifer group, rocks such as Cretaceous marine shales, which are abundant in uranium, probably contribute to the high concentrations in ground water; in the southern part of this group, which extends into Nebraska, the glacial or glacial-related sediment may be interbedded with uranium-rich materials that originated to the north and west and in the Rocky Mountains. In New England, crystalline bedrock that is granitic, such as two-mica granites, as well as other high-grade metamorphic rocks, has abundant uranium that is soluble in the predominantly oxic to sub-oxic geochemical conditions. This appears to contribute to high uranium concentrations in ground water.
The highest 222radon concentrations were present in samples from wells completed in the New York and New England crystalline aquifer group; the median value (2,122 picocurries per liter (pCi/L)) was about 10 times the median values of all other aquifer groups. More than 25 percent of the samples from the New York and New England crystalline aquifer group wells had 222radon concentrations that exceeded the USEPA Alternative