Dissolved trace elements, including iron and manganese, are often an important factor in use of ground water for drinking-water supplies in the glacial aquifer system of the United States. The glacial aquifer system underlies most of New England, extends through the Midwest, and underlies portions of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Concentrations of dissolved trace elements in ground water can vary over several orders of magnitude across local well networks as well as across regions of the United States. Characterization of this variability is a step toward a regional screening-level assessment of potential human-health implications. Ground-water sampling, from 1991 through 2003, of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey determined trace element concentrations in water from 847 wells in the glacial aquifer system. Dissolved iron and manganese concentrations were analyzed in those well samples and in water from an additional 743 NAWQA land-use and major-aquifer survey wells. The samples are from monitoring and water-supply wells. Concentrations of antimony, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, uranium, and zinc vary as much within NAWQA study units (local scale; ranging in size from a few thousand to tens of thousands of square miles) as over the entire glacial aquifer system.
Patterns of trace element concentrations in glacial aquifer system ground water were examined by using techniques suitable for a dataset with zero to 80 percent of analytical results reported as below detection. During the period of sampling, the analytical techniques changed, which generally improved the analytical sensitivity. Multiple reporting limits complicated the comparison of detections and concentrations. Regression on Order Statistics was used to model probability distributions and estimate the medians and other quantiles of the trace element concentrations. Strontium and barium were the most frequently detected and usually were present in the highest concentrations. Iron and manganese were the next most commonly detected and next highest in concentrations. Iron concentrations were the most variable with respect to the range of variations (both within local networks and aquifer-wide) and with respect to the disparity between magnitude of concentrations (detections) and the frequency of samples below reporting limits (nondetections). Antimony, beryllium, cadmium, silver, and thallium were detected too infrequently for substantial interpretation of their occurrence or distributions or potential human-health implications.
For those elements that were more frequently detected, there are some geographic patterns in their occurrence that primarily reflect climate effects. The highest concentrations of several elements were found in the West-Central glacial framework area (High Plains and northern Plains areas). There are few important patterns for any element in relation to land use, well type, or network type. Shallow land-use (monitor) wells had iron concentrations generally lower than the glacial aquifer system wells overall and much lower than major-aquifer survey wells, which comprise mostly private- and public-supply wells. Unlike those for iron, concentration patterns for manganese were similar among shallow land-use wells and major-aquifer survey wells. An apparent relation between low pH and relatively low concentrations of many elements, except lead, may be more indicative of the relatively low dissolved-solids content in wells in the Northeastern United States that comprise the majority of low pH wells, than of a pH dependent pattern.
Iron and manganese have higher concentrations and larger ranges of concentrations especially under more reducing conditions. Dissolved oxygen and well depth were related to iron and manganese concentrations. Redox conditions also affect several trace elements such