Sulfonylurea (SU), sulfonamide (SA), and imidazolinone (IMI) herbicides are recently developed herbicides that function by inhibiting the action of a key plant enzyme, stopping plant growth, and eventually killing the plant. These compounds generally have low mammalian toxicity, but crop and non-crop plants demonstrate a wide range in sensitivity to SUs, SAs, and IMIs, with over a 10,000-fold difference in observed toxicity levels for some compounds. SUs, SAs, and IMIs are applied either pre- or post-emergence to crops commonly at 1/50th or less of the rate of other herbicides. Little is known about their occurrence, fate, or transport in surface water or ground water in the United States.
To obtain information on the occurrence of SU, SA, and IMI herbicides in the Midwestern United States, 214 water samples were collected from 76 surface-water and 25 ground-water sites in 1998. These samples were analyzed for 16 SU, SA, and IMI herbicides by using highperformance liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. Samples also were analyzed for 46 pesticides and pesticide degradation products and 13 herbicides and 10 herbicide degradates.
At least 1 of the 16 SUs, SAs, or IMIs was detected at or above the method reporting limit of 0.010 microgram per liter (ug/L) in 83 percent of 133 stream samples. Imazethapyr was detected most frequently (69 percent of samples), followed by flumetsulam (65 percent of samples) and nicosulfuron (53 percent of samples). At least one SU, SA, or IMI herbicide was detected at or above the method reporting limit in 6 of 8 reservoir samples and 5 of 25 ground-water samples. SU, SA, and IMI herbicides occurred less frequently and at a fraction (often 1/50th or less) of the concentrations of other herbicides such as atrazine. Acetochlor, atrazine, cyanazine, and metolachlor were all detected in 95 percent or more of 136 stream samples.