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Chemical mixtures in untreated water from public-supply wells in the U.S. — Occurrence, composition, and potential toxicity

January 1, 2012

Chemical mixtures are prevalent in groundwater used for public water supply, but little is known about their potential health effects. As part of a large-scale ambient groundwater study, we evaluated chemical mixtures across multiple chemical classes, and included more chemical contaminants than in previous studies of mixtures in public-supply wells. We (1) assessed the occurrence of chemical mixtures in untreated source-water samples from public-supply wells, (2) determined the composition of the most frequently occurring mixtures, and (3) characterized the potential toxicity of mixtures using a new screening approach. The U.S. Geological Survey collected one untreated water sample from each of 383 public wells distributed across 35 states, and analyzed the samples for as many as 91 chemical contaminants. Concentrations of mixture components were compared to individual human-health benchmarks; the potential toxicity of mixtures was characterized by addition of benchmark-normalized component concentrations. Most samples (84%) contained mixtures of two or more contaminants, each at concentrations greater than one-tenth of individual benchmarks. The chemical mixtures that most frequently occurred and had the greatest potential toxicity primarily were composed of trace elements (including arsenic, strontium, or uranium), radon, or nitrate. Herbicides, disinfection by-products, and solvents were the most common organic contaminants in mixtures. The sum of benchmark-normalized concentrations was greater than 1 for 58% of samples, suggesting that there could be potential for mixtures toxicity in more than half of the public-well samples. Our findings can be used to help set priorities for groundwater monitoring and suggest future research directions for drinking-water treatment studies and for toxicity assessments of chemical mixtures in water resources.