National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4279

A Retrospective Analysis on the Occurrence of Arsenic in Ground-Water Resources of the United States and Limitations in Drinking-Water-Supply Characterizations

By Michael J. Focazio, Alan H. Welch, Sharon A. Watkins, Dennis R. Helsel, and Marilee A. Horn


The Safe Drinking Water Act, as amended in 1996, requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to review current drinking-water standards for arsenic, propose a maximum contaminant level for arsenic by January 1, 2000, and issue a final regulation by January, 2001. Quantification of the national occurrence of targeted ranges in arsenic concentration in ground water used for public drinking-water supplies is an important component of USEPA's regulatory process. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water Information System (NWIS) were used in a retrospective analysis of arsenic in the ground-water resources of the United States. The analysis augments other existing sources of data on the occurrence of arsenic collected in ground water at public water-supply systems.

The USGS, through its District offices and national programs, has been compiling data for many years on arsenic concentrations collected from wells used for public water supply, research, agriculture, industry, and domestic water supply throughout the United States. These data have been collected for a variety of purposes ranging from simple descriptions of the occurrence of arsenic in local or regional ground-water resources to detailed studies on arsenic geochemistry associated with contamination sites. A total of 18,864 sample locations were selected from the USGS NWIS data base regardless of well type, of which 2,262 were taken from public water-supply sources. Samples with non-potable water (dissolved-solids concentration greater than 2,000 milligrams per liter and water temperature greater than 50o Celsius) were not selected for the retrospective analysis and other criteria for selection included the amount and type of ancillary data available for each sample. The 1,528 counties with sufficient data included 76 percent of all large public water-supply systems (serving more than 10,000 people) and 61 percent of all small public water-supply systems (serving more than 1,000 and less than 10,000 people) in the United States. The arsenic data were summarized for the selected counties by associating the arsenic concentrations measured in the ground-water resource with the numbers and sizes of public water-supply systems using ground water in those counties. Targeted arsenic concentrations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 ug/L were exceeded in the ground-water resource associated with 36, 25, 14, 8, 3, and 1 percent respectively of all public water-supply systems accounted for in the analysis.

Contributions to uncertainty such as changes in sampling methods and changes in laboratory reporting appear to be less important to the national occurrence estimates than other factors such as temporal variability in arsenic concentrations at a given well, the types of wells sampled, and density and types of sampling locations. In addition, no attempt was made to quantify arsenic concentrations in relation to depth within aquifers. With these qualifications, the USGS data represent the ground-water resource in general and are not restricted to wells currently used for public drinking-water sources. In this way, the broad spatial extent, large number of water samples, and low detection limits used for the USGS data provide a unique source of information to determine where targeted concentrations of arsenic are likely to occur in the ground-water resources within much of the United States.

These results indicate USGS data can be effectively used to augment national estimates of arsenic occurrence in the nation's ground-water resources if limitations are recognized. Existing estimates of the occurrence of arsenic in ground water that are used as a source of drinking water can be supplemented with the USGS arsenic concentration data when associated with the public water-supply data base. One such supplementary application is the additional insight gained by establishing relations between arsenic concentration data in the ground-water resource and small public water-supply systems that serve less than 1,000 people on a national scale.

Table of Contents

Download USGS arsenic data

Associated Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet 063-00, "Arsenic in Ground-Water Resources of the United States," is based on WRI 99-4279.

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For further information about this report, contact the National Water-Quality Assessment Program office.

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