2013 Survey of Iowa groundwater and evaluation of public well vulnerability classifications for contaminants of emerging concern

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Thursday, January 1, 2015
Claire E. Hruby
Robert D. Libra
Chad L. Fields
Dana W. Kolpin
Laura E. Hubbard
Mark R. Borchardt
Susan K. Spencer
Michael D. Wichman
Nancy Hall
Michael D. Schueller
Edward T. Furlong
Peter J. Weyer
Journal Title: 
Iowa Geological and Water Survey Technical Information Series 57

Studies in Iowa have long documented the vulnerability of wells with less than 50 feet (15 meters) of confining materials above the source aquifer to contamination from nitrate and various pesticides. Recent studies in Wisconsin have documented the occurrence of viruses in untreated groundwater, even in wells considered to have little vulnerability to contamination from near-surface activities. In addition, sensitive methods have become available for analyses of pharmaceuticals and pesticides. This study represents the first comprehensive examination of contaminants of emerging concern in Iowa’s groundwater conducted to date, and one of the first conducted in the United States.

Raw groundwater samples were collected from 66 public supply wells during the spring of 2013, when the state was recovering from drought conditions. Samples were analyzed for 206 chemical and biological parameters; including 20 general water-quality parameters and major ions, 19 metals, 5 nutrients, 10 virus groups, 3 species of pathogenic bacteria, 5 microbial indicators, 108 pharmaceuticals, 35 pesticides and pesticide degradates, and tritium. The wells chosen for this study represent a diverse range of ages, depths, confining material thicknesses, pumping rates, and land use settings.

The most commonly detected contaminant group was pesticide compounds, which were present in 41% of the samples. As many as 6 pesticide compounds were found together in a sample, most of which were chloroacetanilide degradates. While none of the measured concentrations of pesticide compounds exceeded current benchmark levels, several of these compounds are listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Contaminant Candidate List and could be subject to drinking water standards in the future. Despite heavy use in the past decade, glyphosate was not detected, and its metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid, was only detected in two of 60 wells tested (3%) at the detection limit of 0.02 μg/L.

Pharmaceutical compounds were detected in 35% of 63 samples. Of the 14 pharmaceuticals detected, six had reported concentrations above the method reporting limit, with the maximum reported concentration of 826 ng/L for acetaminophen. Diphenhydramine was the only pharmaceutical to have two detections above the reporting limit, at 24.5 and 145 ng/L. Eight pharmaceuticals had confirmed detections at concentrations below the method reporting limit. Caffeine was the most frequently detected pharmaceutical compound (25%), followed by the caffeine metabolite, 1,7- dimethylxanthine (16%).

 Microorganisms were detected in 21% of the wells using quantitative polymerase chain reaction methodologies. The most frequently detected microorganism was the pepper mild mottle virus (PMMV), a plant pathogen found in human waste. PMMV was detected in 17% of samples at concentrations ranging from 0.4 to 6.38 gene copies per liter. GII norovirus, human polyomavirus, bovine polyomavirus, and Campylobacter were also detected, while adenovirus, enterovirus, GI norovirus, swine hepatitis E, Salmonella, and enterohemmorhagic E. coli were not detected. No correlations were found between viruses or pathogenic bacteria and microbial indicators.

Wells with less than 50 feet (15 meters) of confining material were shown to have greater incidence of surface-related contaminants; however, significant relationships (p<0.05) between confining layer thickness and contaminants were only found for nitrate and herbicides.


Hruby CE, Libra RD, Fields CL, Kolpin DW, Hubbard LE, Borchardt MR, Spencer SK, Wichman MD, Hall N, Schueller MD, Furlong ET. 2013 Survey of Iowa groundwater and evaluation of public well vulnerability classifications for contaminants of emerging concern.