The authors investigate the sources and processes of groundwater contamination and their assessment within the Drivers-Pressures-State-Impact- Response (DPSIR) framework. Naturally occurring substances, trace elements, radionuclides, nutrients, and salt (sodium chloride) are reviewed with emphasis on the assessment of the natural background load. Some synthetic substances are also considered, these being petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorinated aliphatics, pesticides and organic-waste contaminants. Newly emerging contaminants cannot be described within the DPSIR; therefore monitoring approaches and indicators of contamination are discussed in order to propose improved monitoring plans that combine physical, chemical and biological indicators and combine science with policy. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.