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Occurrence and distribution of iron, manganese, and selected trace elements in ground water in the glacial aquifer system of the northern United States

May 30, 2009

Dissolved trace elements, including iron and manganese, are often an important factor in use of ground water for drinking-water supplies in the glacial aquifer system of the United States. The glacial aquifer system underlies most of New England, extends through the Midwest, and underlies portions of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Concentrations of dissolved trace elements in ground water can vary over several orders of magnitude across local well networks as well as across regions of the United States. Characterization of this variability is a step toward a regional screening-level assessment of potential human-health implications. Ground-water sampling, from 1991 through 2003, of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey determined trace element concentrations in water from 847 wells in the glacial aquifer system. Dissolved iron and manganese concentrations were analyzed in those well samples and in water from an additional 743 NAWQA land-use and major-aquifer survey wells. The samples are from monitoring and water-supply wells. Concentrations of antimony, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, strontium, thallium, uranium, and zinc vary as much within NAWQA study units (local scale; ranging in size from a few thousand to tens of thousands of square miles) as over the entire glacial aquifer system.

Patterns of trace element concentrations in glacial aquifer system ground water were examined by using techniques suitable for a dataset with zero to 80 percent of analytical results reported as below detection. During the period of sampling, the analytical techniques changed, which generally improved the analytical sensitivity. Multiple reporting limits complicated the comparison of detections and concentrations. Regression on Order Statistics was used to model probability distributions and estimate the medians and other quantiles of the trace element concentrations. Strontium and barium were the most frequently detected and usually were present in the highest concentrations. Iron and manganese were the next most commonly detected and next highest in concentrations. Iron concentrations were the most variable with respect to the range of variations (both within local networks and aquifer-wide) and with respect to the disparity between magnitude of concentrations (detections) and the frequency of samples below reporting limits (nondetections). Antimony, beryllium, cadmium, silver, and thallium were detected too infrequently for substantial interpretation of their occurrence or distributions or potential human-health implications.

For those elements that were more frequently detected, there are some geographic patterns in their occurrence that primarily reflect climate effects. The highest concentrations of several elements were found in the West-Central glacial framework area (High Plains and northern Plains areas). There are few important patterns for any element in relation to land use, well type, or network type. Shallow land-use (monitor) wells had iron concentrations generally lower than the glacial aquifer system wells overall and much lower than major-aquifer survey wells, which comprise mostly private- and public-supply wells. Unlike those for iron, concentration patterns for manganese were similar among shallow land-use wells and major-aquifer survey wells. An apparent relation between low pH and relatively low concentrations of many elements, except lead, may be more indicative of the relatively low dissolved-solids content in wells in the Northeastern United States that comprise the majority of low pH wells, than of a pH dependent pattern.

Iron and manganese have higher concentrations and larger ranges of concentrations especially under more reducing conditions. Dissolved oxygen and well depth were related to iron and manganese concentrations. Redox conditions also affect several trace elements such as arsenic and copper; however, a comparison of redox categories, based in part on iron and manganese concentrations, indicated that the concentrations of many redox-sensitive elements were not significantly different among redox categories. Some of the redox-related patterns were not what would be expected on the basis of solubility constraints. Furthermore, barium is affected by redox conditions in at least one well network even though it is not a redox-sensitive element. Concentrations of barium in portions of the glacial aquifer system are limited by sulfate, which is strongly affected by redox conditions.

Few samples had concentrations of any trace element that exceeded drinking-water standards (Maximum Contaminant Levels), for compounds regulated in drinking water or Health-Based Screening Levels for unregulated trace elements. More unregulated trace elements had concentrations greater than benchmarks than regulated trace elements. More samples had manganese concentrations greater its benchmark than any other element in the glacial aquifer system wells. Of the 1,590 wells sampled for manganese, only 556 are for private or public drinking-water supplies, and of those, 9.9 percent (55) exceeded the manganese Lifetime Health Advisory. Concentrations of arsenic, selenium, and uranium less frequently exceeded Maximum Contaminant Levels. There are 29 wells that had 2 element concentrations that exceeded their respective benchmarks. Most concentrations that exceeded a health-based benchmark were from wells in the West-Central area (Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas); however, there is little geographical pattern to the wells with element concentrations of concern.

Publication Year 2009
Title Occurrence and distribution of iron, manganese, and selected trace elements in ground water in the glacial aquifer system of the northern United States
DOI 10.3133/sir20095006
Authors George E. Groschen, Terri Arnold, William S. Morrow, Kelly L. Warner
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2009-5006
Index ID sir20095006
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Illinois Water Science Center