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U.S. Geological Survey
Water-Resources Investigations Report 02-4085
Online Version 1.0

Occurrence and status of volatile organic compounds in ground water from rural, untreated, self-supplied domestic wells in the United States, 1986-99

By Michael Moran, Wayne Lapham, Barbara Rowe, and John Zogorski

Samples of untreated ground water from 1,926 rural, self-supplied domestic wells were analyzed for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during 1986-99. This information was used to characterize the occurrence and status of VOCs in domestic well water. The samples were either collected as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program occurrence-assessment studies or were compiled by NAWQA from existing ambient ground-water or source-water-quality monitoring programs conducted by local, State, and other Federal agencies. Water samples were collected at the wellhead prior to treatment or storage. In most samples, 55 target VOCs were analyzed, and occurrence and status information generally was computed at an assessment level of 0.2 mg/L (microgram per liter).

At least one VOC was detected in 12 percent of samples (232 samples) at an assessment level of 0.2 mg/L. This detection frequency is relatively low compared to the 26 percent detection frequency of at least one VOC in public sup-ply wells sampled by NAWQA, and the difference may be due, in part, to the higher pumping rates, pumping stress factors, and larger contributing areas of public supply wells. Samples with detections of at least one VOC were collected from wells located in 31 of 39 States.

Solvents were the most frequently detected VOC group with detections in 4.6 percent of samples (89 samples) at an assessment level of 0.2 mg/L. The geographic distribution of detections of some VOC groups, such as fumigants and oxygenates, relates to the use pattern of com-pounds in that group. With the exception of com-pounds used in organic synthesis, detection frequencies of VOCs by group are proportional to the average half-life of compounds in the group. When the organic synthesis group is excluded from the analysis, a good correlation exists between the detection frequency of VOCs by group and average half-life of compounds in the group.

Individually, VOCs were not commonly detected at an assessment level of 0.2 mg/L, with the seven most frequently detected VOCs found in only 1 to 5 percent of samples. Mixtures (two or more compounds) were a common mode of occurrence for VOCs when no assessment level was applied, and mixtures occurred in one-half of all samples that contained at least one VOC. Only 1.4 percent of samples (27 samples) had one or more VOC concentrations that exceeded a federally established drinking-water standard or health criterion. Only 0.1 percent of samples (2 samples) had one or more VOC concentrations that exceeded a taste/odor threshold.

Potential point sources of VOCs near domestic wells are numerous. Leaks from under-ground storage tanks and aboveground storage tanks that hold gasoline, diesel fuel, or heating oil have the potential to be major point sources of contaminants to domestic wells. Shock chlorination may be a source of trichloromethane and other trihalomethanes in some domestic wells. Septic systems are believed to be an important source of contaminants to domestic wells, but extensive research on this subject does not exist. VOCs frequently are ingredients in household products such as cleansers and insecticides, and some VOCs have been found in septic systems.

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
NAWQA VOC National Synthesis
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