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Understanding Chemical Analysis Results

Reading and interpreting the results of chemical analyses reported to public water systems by a drinking-water laboratory.

Chemical analysis results can be confusing; understanding the basic components can help. While there are many types of analysis results, there are many components common to all of them.

Dates

Many dates appear on the analysis form, but only one is of real interest to the water system. This is the date the sample was collected. On the result form, this date is called the “Sample Date,” “Collection Date,” “Source Date,” or “Date Collected.”

Qualifiers

These are characters found before the results number. There are two common qualifiers, “<” (less than) and “>” (greater than). When you see a “<” sign in the result, the amount indicated is the smallest amount that the analysis method can report (reporting limit). Therefore, when a “<” sign is included with your results, the amount of chemical was less than the laboratory's reporting limit.

It happens rarely, but you may also see a “>” sign in the result. This means the amount of chemical found is above the amount the analysis method can measure accurately. You have at least the amount indicated and probably more.

Units of Measure

A unit of measure is the amount of chemical found in a specific volume of water. It is also called concentration units, or simply units. The four common units of measure used in drinking water analysis results are milligrams per liter (mg/L), micrograms per liter (µg/L), parts per million (ppm), and parts per billion (ppb).

mg/L and ppm are equivalent. To convert mg/L to µg/L simply multiply by 1000 (1 mg/L = 1000 µg/L). One part per million is about the same as one drop of soda in fifty 32-oz. drinks.

µg/L and ppb are equivalent.  µg/L is one thousand times less than mg/L. To convert µg/L to mg/L, simply divide by 1000 (1 µg/L = 0.001 mg/L).

Even though these amounts appear very small, any amount can be potent and harmful. For example, trace amounts of pesticides are known to be harmful at levels 1000 times less than 1 µg/L or 1 ppb, and strong evidence exists that lifetime exposure can result in cancer. Therefore, a very minute amount of chemical constituent can be of significance and concern.

Types of Chemicals Sampled

Inorganic chemicals generally do not contain carbon. They are metals such as iron or arsenic, minerals such as calcium and fluoride, and salts such as nitrate and nitrite. Many metals, minerals, and salts may only make the water unappealing to drink; while others, when found in excessive quantities, may have detrimental effects on human health. For example, nitrates in excess of 10 mg/L can cause “blue baby syndrome,” which results from interference in the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. This can be fatal to infants.(30 TAC §209.106)

Organic chemicals contain carbon and include synthetic organic compounds (SOCs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and trihalomethanes (THMs). SOCs include insecticides, herbicides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). VOCs are found in gasoline, paints, solvents, and plastics, and are generally considered petroleum-related products. (30 TAC §209.107)

THMs and HAAs (haloacetic acids) are chemical by-products that are formed when water is treated with chlorine. They are also referred to as disinfection by-products, or DBPs. Many organic chemicals may cause cancer if consumed at levels greater than the associated maximum contaminant level (MCL) over many years.(30 TAC §209.113)

Radiochemicals are radioactive materials, which can occur naturally or may be man-made. Alpha particles are positively charged particles while beta particles are negatively charged particles. Both types may cause cancer if consumed over many years at levels above the associated MCLs. (30 TAC §209.108)

Microbiological contaminants  include organisms such as coliform bacteria and Escherichia coli (E. coli), and parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Many microbiological contaminants can cause immediate health problems with symptoms similar to flu or intestinal distress. These symptoms are usually temporary for healthy individuals but can be fatal for infants, the elderly, and individuals whose immune systems are compromised. (30 TAC §209.109)

Sampling Frequency

Sampling frequencies are based on several factors, such as:

  • Type of water system,
  • size of the population served by the system,
  • type of water (groundwater or surface water),
  • detections and MCL violations,
  • and how vulnerable the water source is to contaminants.

Billing

TCEQ pays for the collection of chemical samples through a contractor, however, it is the responsibility of each water system to pay the laboratories for chemical analyses. Failure to do so will result in monitoring violations. The laboratories used by the TCEQ are non-profit, which means that they only charge for the actual cost of analysis. These laboratories are responsible for billing the water systems and sending you the results. Please direct billing questions to the associated laboratory. You may contact the Department of State Health Services Lab at 512-458-7318 or the Lower Colorado River Authority Lab at 512-356-6022. If you need assistance with scheduling or interpretation of the results, please contact the TCEQ at 512-239-4691.

Schedule of Laboratory Fees (PDF)

Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL)

The TCEQ reviews all chemical analyses. When the level of a contaminant exceeds its associated MCL, several things happen:

  • TCEQ will verify the result with a check sample, if necessary
  • The monitoring frequency may increase for the parameter that exceeded the MCL
  • If a violation occurs, the TCEQ will send a notice of violation letter to the water system
  • The water system will be required to notify customers of the violation so vulnerable populations are protected
  • The water system will be required to take action to curtail or correct the violation
  • Summary of MCLs Exit the TCEQ