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National findings and their implications for water policies and strategies

U.S. Geological Circular 1225--The Quality of Our Nation's Waters--Nutrients and Pesticides

Water-quality patterns in urban areas

Insecticides typically were detected in urban areas, sometimes at high concentrations

Urban areas, covering less than 5 percent of land in the continental United States, traditionally have not been recognized as important contributors to pesticide contamination, especially when compared to agricultural land, which covers more than 50 percent of the United States. Findings in the first 20 Study Units, however, show a widespread occurrence of some insecticides commonly used around homes and gardens and in commercial and public areas. In fact, these insecticides occurred at higher frequencies, and usually at higher concentrations, in urban streams than in agricultural streams. Most common were diazinon, carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, and malathion. As in agricultural areas, insecticides were detected in ground water less frequently than in streams. Some herbicides--including atrazine, simazine, and prometon, which are used to control weeds in lawns and golf courses, and along roads and rights-of-way--also occurred frequently in samples collected from streams and shallow ground water in urban areas.

Concentrations of insecticides in urban streams commonly exceeded guidelines for protection of aquatic life

Insecticides, which generally are more toxic to aquatic life than herbicides, frequently exceeded USEPA, Canadian, or International Joint Commission water-quality guidelines in urban streams. Almost every urban stream sampled had concentrations of insecticides that exceeded at least one guideline, and most had concentrations that exceeded a guideline in 10 to 40 percent of samples collected throughout the year.

Urban streams had the highest frequencies of occurrence of DDT, chlordane, and dieldrin in fish and sediment, and the highest concentrations of chlordane and dieldrin

DDT is an insecticide that commonly was used in the United States until the early 1970s to control insects on cropland and lawns and mosquitoes in populated areas. Chlordane and aldrin (the parent compound that breaks down to dieldrin) were used widely until the late 1980s to control termites. Since the use of DDT was restricted, concentrations have decreased in sediment in urban areas, as indicated by sediment-core samples from urban reservoirs and lakes. Similar declines are not yet evident in concentrations of chlordane and dieldrin in sediment, most likely because of their continued use into the late 1980s. Despite downward trends in some areas, organochlorine insecticides commonly are found at elevated levels in bed sediment and fish in urban streams. Sediment-quality guidelines for protection of aquatic life were exceeded at nearly 40 percent of urban sites, and concentrations in whole fish exceeded guidelines for protection of wildlife at 20 percent of urban sites. Although most urban streams are not used for drinking water, the frequent occurrence of insecticides in water, sediment, and fish is a potential concern for recreational use and for fish consumption.

Complex mixtures of pesticides commonly occur in urban streams

Similar to agricultural pesticides, urban pesticides commonly occurred in mixtures. More than 10 percent of urban stream samples contained a mixture of the insecticides diazinon and chlorpyrifos, along with at least four herbicides. Two of the most common herbicides in these mixtures were simazine and prometon. Concentrations of phosphorus were elevated in urban streams Concentrations of total phosphorus in streams generally were higher in urban areas than in agricultural areas; concentrations commonly exceeded the USEPA desired goal (0.1 milligram per liter) to control excessive growth of algae and other nuisance plants in streams. Elevated concentrations of phosphorus are, in part, due to effluent from wastewater treatment plants, despite some long-term decreases in phosphorus resulting from improved treatment technology. The highest concentrations of total phosphorus were in streams in semiarid western and southwestern cities, where discharges from wastewater treatment plants may account for a significant proportion of streamflow. Concentrations of phosphorus also were high in urban areas in the East.

Nitrogen levels have remained nearly unchanged in rivers downstream from wastewater treatment plants

Although NAWQA focused mostly on nonpoint sources of nutrients, sampling of some rivers downstream from wastewater treatment plants showed that total nitrogen levels have remained nearly stable since the 1970s. Improvements in wastewater treatment have kept pace with urban population growth in major metropolitan areas. However, wastewater treatment has resulted in changes in the forms of nitrogen in the water; specifically, nitrogen in the form of ammonia commonly is converted to nitrate during the treatment process. The conversion makes the discharge less toxic to fish, but it may not help to resolve problems with excessive growth of algae.

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