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Nutrient and pesticide contamination bias estimated from field blanks collected at surface-water sites in U.S. Geological Survey Water-Quality Networks, 2002–12

August 14, 2017

Potential contamination bias was estimated for 8 nutrient analytes and 40 pesticides in stream water collected by the U.S. Geological Survey at 147 stream sites from across the United States, and representing a variety of hydrologic conditions and site types, for water years 2002–12. This study updates previous U.S. Geological Survey evaluations of potential contamination bias for nutrients and pesticides. Contamination is potentially introduced to water samples by exposure to airborne gases and particulates, from inadequate cleaning of sampling or analytic equipment, and from inadvertent sources during sample collection, field processing, shipment, and laboratory analysis. Potential contamination bias, based on frequency and magnitude of detections in field blanks, is used to determine whether or under what conditions environmental data might need to be qualified for the interpretation of results in the context of comparisons with background levels, drinking-water standards, aquatic-life criteria or benchmarks, or human-health benchmarks. Environmental samples for which contamination bias as determined in this report applies are those from historical U.S. Geological Survey water-quality networks or programs that were collected during the same time frame and according to the same protocols and that were analyzed in the same laboratory as field blanks described in this report.

Results from field blanks for ammonia, nitrite, nitrite plus nitrate, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus were partitioned by analytical method; results from the most commonly used analytical method for total phosphorus were further partitioned by date. Depending on the analytical method, 3.8, 9.2, or 26.9 percent of environmental samples, the last of these percentages pertaining to all results from 2007 through 2012, were potentially affected by ammonia contamination. Nitrite contamination potentially affected up to 2.6 percent of environmental samples collected between 2002 and 2006 and affected about 3.3 percent of samples collected between 2007 and 2012. The percentages of environmental samples collected between 2002 and 2011 that were potentially affected by nitrite plus nitrate contamination were 7.3 for samples analyzed with the low-level method and 0.4 for samples analyzed with the standard-level method. These percentages increased to 14.8 and 2.2 for samples collected in 2012 and analyzed using replacement low- and standard-level methods, respectively. The maximum potentially affected concentrations for nitrite and for nitrite plus nitrate were much less than their respective maximum contamination levels for drinking-water standards. Although contamination from particulate nitrogen can potentially affect up to 21.2 percent and that from total Kjeldahl nitrogen can affect up to 16.5 percent of environmental samples, there are no critical or background levels for these substances.

For total nitrogen, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus, contamination in a small percentage of environmental samples might be consequential for comparisons relative to impairment risks or background levels. At the low ends of the respective ranges of impairment risk for these nutrients, contamination in up to 5 percent of stream samples could account for at least 23 percent of measured concentrations of total nitrogen, for at least 40 or 90 percent of concentrations of orthophosphate, depending on the analytical method, and for 31 to 76 percent of concentrations of total phosphorus, depending on the time period.

Twenty-six pesticides had no detections in field blanks. Atrazine with 12 and metolachlor with 11 had the highest number of detections, mostly occurring in spring or early summer. At a 99-percent level of confidence, contamination was estimated to be no greater than the detection limit in at least 98 percent of all samples for 38 of 40 pesticides. For metolachlor and atrazine, potential contamination was no greater than 0.0053 and 0.0093 micrograms per liter in 98 percent of samples. For 11 of 14 pesticides with at least one detection, the maximum potentially affected concentration of the environmental sample was less than their respective human-health or aquatic-life benchmarks. Small percentages of environmental samples had concentrations high enough that atrazine contamination potentially could account for the entire aquatic-life benchmark for acute effects on nonvascular plants, that dieldrin contamination could account for up to 100 percent of the cancer health-based screening level, or that chlorpyrifos contamination could account for 13 or 12 percent of the concentrations in the aquatic-life benchmarks for chronic effects on invertebrates or the criterion continuous concentration for chronic effects on aquatic life.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2017
Title Nutrient and pesticide contamination bias estimated from field blanks collected at surface-water sites in U.S. Geological Survey Water-Quality Networks, 2002–12
DOI 10.3133/sir20165129
Authors Laura Medalie, Jeffrey D. Martin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5129
Index ID sir20165129
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New England Water Science Center