A CIESE Collaborative Project

Biological Oxygen Demand

Background Information
Microorganisms such as bacteria are responsible for decomposing organic waste. When organic matter such as dead plants, leaves, grass clippings, manure, sewage, or even food waste is present in a water supply, the bacteria will begin the process of breaking down this waste. When this happens, much of the available dissolved oxygen is consumed by aerobic bacteria, robbing other aquatic organisms of the oxygen they need to live. Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) is a measure of the oxygen used by microorganisms to decompose this waste. If there is a large quantity of organic waste in the water supply, there will also be a lot of bacteria present working to decompose this waste. In this case, the demand for oxygen will be high (due to all the bacteria) so the BOD level will be high. As the waste is consumed or dispersed through the water, BOD levels will begin to decline.

Nitrates and phosphates in a body of water can contribute to high BOD levels. Nitrates and phosphates are plant nutrients and can cause plant life and algae to grow quickly. When plants grow quickly, they also die quickly. This contributes to the organic waste in the water, which is then decomposed by bacteria. This results in a high BOD level.

When BOD levels are high, dissolved oxygen (DO) levels decrease because the oxygen that is available in the water is being consumed by the bacteria. Since less dissolved oxygen is available in the water, fish and other aquatic organisms may not survive.

Test Procedure
The BOD test takes 5 days to complete and is performed using a dissolved oxygen test kit. The BOD level is determined by comparing the DO level of a water sample taken immediately with the DO level of a water sample that has been incubated in a dark location for 5 days. The difference between the two DO levels represents the amount of oxygen required for the decomposition of any organic material in the sample and is a good approximation of the BOD level.

Take 2 samples of water and record the DO level (ppm) of one immediately using the method described in the dissolved oxygen test. Place the second water sample in an incubator in complete darkness at 20 oC for 5 days. If you don't have an incubator, wrap the water sample bottle in aluminum foil or black electrical tape and store in a dark place at room temperature (20 oC or 68 oF). After 5 days, take another dissolved oxygen reading (ppm) using the dissolved oxygen test kit. The BOD level is determined by subtracting the Day 5 reading from the Day 1 reading. Record your final BOD result in ppm.

What to Expect
A BOD level of 1-2 ppm is considered very good. There will not be much organic waste present in the water supply. A water supply with a BOD level of 3-5 ppm is considered moderately clean. In water with a BOD level of 6-9 ppm, the water is considered somewhat polluted because there is usually organic matter present and bacteria are decomposing this waste. At BOD levels of 100 ppm or greater, the water supply is considered very polluted with organic waste.

Generally, when BOD levels are high, there is a decline in DO levels. This is because the demand for oxygen by the bacteria is high and they are taking that oxygen from the oxygen dissolved in the water. If there is no organic waste present in the water, there won't be as many bacteria present to decompose it and thus the BOD will tend to be lower and the DO level will tend to be higher.

At high BOD levels, organisms that are more tolerant of lower dissolved oxygen (i.e. leeches and sludge worms) may appear and become numerous. Organisms that need higher oxygen levels (i.e. caddisfly larvae and mayfly nymphs) will not survive.