Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD, also called Biological Oxygen Demand) is the amount of dissolved oxygen needed (i.e. demanded) by aerobic biological organisms to break down organic material present in a given water sample at certain temperature over a specific time period. The BOD value is most commonly expressed in milligrams of oxygen consumed per litre of sample during 5 days of incubation at 20 °C and is often used as a surrogate of the degree of organic pollution of water.


BOD can be used as a gauge of the effectiveness of wastewater treatment plants. BOD is similar in function to chemical oxygen demand (COD), in that both measure the amount of organic compounds in water. However, COD is less specific, since it measures everything that can be chemically oxidized, rather than just levels of biodegradable organic matter.


Most natural waters contain small quantities of organic compounds. Aquatic microorganisms have evolved to use some of these compounds as food. Microorganisms living in oxygenated waters use dissolved oxygen to oxidatively degrade the organic compounds, releasing energy which is used for growth and reproduction. Populations of these microorganisms tend to increase in proportion to the amount of food available. This microbial metabolism creates an oxygen demand proportional to the amount of organic compounds useful as food. Under some circumstances, microbial metabolism can consume dissolved oxygen faster than atmospheric oxygen can dissolve into the water or the autotrophic community (algae, cyanobacteria and macrophytes) can produce. Fish and aquatic insects may die when oxygen is depleted by microbial metabolism.


Biochemical oxygen demand is the amount of oxygen required for microbial metabolism of organic compounds in water. This demand occurs over some variable period of time depending on temperature, nutrient concentrations, and the enzymes available to indigenous microbial populations. The amount of oxygen required to completely oxidize the organic compounds to carbon dioxide and water through generations of microbial growth, death, decay, and cannibalism is total biochemical oxygen demand (total BOD). Total BOD is of more significance to food webs than to water quality. Dissolved oxygen depletion is most likely to become evident during the initial aquatic microbial population explosion in response to a large amount of organic material. If the microbial population deoxygenates the water, however, that lack of oxygen imposes a limit on population growth of aerobic aquatic microbial organisms resulting in a longer term food surplus and oxygen deficit.


A standard temperature at which BOD testing should be carried out was first proposed by the Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal in its eighth report in 1912:


” (c) An effluent in order to comply with the general standard must not contain as discharged more than 3 parts per 100,000 of suspended matter, and with its suspended matters included must not take up at 65°F more than 2.0 parts per 100,000 of dissolved oxygen in 5 days. This general standard should be prescribed either by Statute or by order of the Central Authority, and should be subject to modifications by that Authority after an interval of not less than ten years.


This was later standardised at 68 °F and then 20 °C. This temperature may be significantly different from the temperature of the natural environment of the water being tested.


Although the Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal proposed 5 days as an adequate test period for rivers of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, longer periods were investigated for North American rivers. Incubation periods of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 days were being used into the mid-20th century. Keeping dissolved oxygen available at their chosen temperature, investigators found up to 99 percent of total BOD was exerted within 20 days, 90 percent within 10 days, and approximately 68 percent within 5 days. Variable microbial population shifts to nitrifying bacteria limit test reproducibility for periods greater than 5 days. The 5-day test protocol with acceptably reproducible results emphasizing carbonaceous BOD has been endorsed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This 5-day BOD test result may be described as the amount of oxygen required for aquatic microorganisms to stabilize decomposable organic matter under aerobic conditions. Stabilization, in this context, may be perceived in general terms as the conversion of food to living aquatic fauna. Although these fauna will continue to exert biochemical oxygen demand as they die, that tends to occur within a more stable evolved ecosystem including higher trophic levels.

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