Magazine article Science News

A Portrait of Pollution: Nation's Fresh Water Gets a Checkup

Magazine article Science News

A Portrait of Pollution: Nation's Fresh Water Gets a Checkup

Article excerpt

Virtually all of America's fresh water is tainted with low concentrations of chemical contaminants, according to the new report of an ambitious nationwide study of streams and groundwater conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Pesticides, for example, were detected in 94 percent of all water samples and in 90 percent offish samples. While the widespread appearance of pollutants is cause for concern, the report states, their concentrations fell well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended limits in most places.

The USGS has monitored the nation's water for more than 3 decades, but the new data, gathered under the auspices of the National Water-Quality Assessment program, are the broadest by far. More than 400 scientists tested thousands of rivers, aquifers, wells, fish, and sediments across the country over a 10-year period. They analyzed some 11 million samples for more than 600 chemicals.

"It's a huge expansion;' says Timothy L. Miller, chief of the USGS Office of Water Quality. "It's a world away from what we were doing in the '70s and '80s."

The report reveals blurring boundaries between rural and urban pollution. Miller expected to find the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) in large cities, for example, but he and his colleagues also found the chemical in groundwater far from urban locales. "We didn't anticipate [that]," he says.

Mercury is also making its way into pristine areas. …

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