More than one-third of the Nation's population receives their drinking water from public water systems that use groundwater as their source. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) sampled untreated source water from 932 public-supply wells, hereafter referred to as public wells, as part of multiple groundwater assessments conducted across the Nation during 1993-2007. The objectives of this study were to evaluate (1) contaminant occurrence in source water from public wells and the potential significance of contaminant concentrations to human health, (2) national and regional distributions of groundwater quality, and (3) the occurrence and characteristics of contaminant mixtures. Treated finished water was not sampled.
The 932 public wells are widely distributed nationally and include wells in selected parts of 41 states and withdraw water from parts of 30 regionally extensive aquifers used for public water supply. These wells are distributed among 629 unique public water systems-less than 1 percent of all groundwater-supplied public water systems in the United States-but the wells were randomly selected within the sampled hydrogeologic settings to represent typical aquifer conditions. Samples from the 629 systems represent source water used by one-quarter of the U.S. population served by groundwater-supplied public water systems, or about 9 percent of the entire U.S. population in 2008.
One groundwater sample was collected prior to treatment or blending from each of the 932 public wells and analyzed for as many as six water-quality properties and 215 contaminants. Consistent with the terminology used in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), all constituents analyzed in water samples in this study are referred to as 'contaminants'. More contaminant groups were assessed in this study than in any previous national study of public wells and included major ions, nutrients, radionuclides, trace elements, pesticide compounds, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and fecal-indicator microorganisms. Contaminant mixtures were assessed in subsets of samples in which most contaminants were analyzed.
Contaminant concentrations were compared to human-health benchmarks-regulatory U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for contaminants regulated in drinking water under the SDWA or non-regulatory USGS Health-Based Screening Levels (HBSLs) for unregulated contaminants, when available. Nearly three-quarters of the contaminants assessed in this study are unregulated in drinking water, and the USEPA uses USGS data on the occurrence of unregulated contaminants in water resources to fulfill part of the SDWA requirements for determining whether specific contaminants should be regulated in drinking water in the future.
More than one in five (22 percent) source-water samples from public wells contained one or more naturally occurring or man-made contaminants at concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks, and 80 percent of samples contained one or more contaminants at concentrations greater than one-tenth of benchmarks. Most individual contaminant detections, however, were less than one-tenth of human-health benchmarks. Public wells yielding water with contaminant concentrations greater than benchmarks, as well as those with concentrations greater than one-tenth of benchmarks, were distributed throughout the United States and included wells that withdraw water from all principal aquifer rock types included in this study.
Ten contaminants individually were detected at concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks in at least 1 percent of source-water samples and collectively accounted for most concentrations greater than benchmarks. Seven of these 10 contaminants occur naturally, including three radionuclides (radon, radium, and gross alpha-particle radioactivity) and four trace elements (arsenic, manganese, strontium, and boron); three of these 10 contaminants (dieldrin, nitrate, and perchl