Chicago’s tap water is considered safe to drink by both the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and testing shows contaminant levels to be within allowable limits.
However, the pipes running in many homes that have been built before the 1980s may leach dangerous levels of lead into the water.
Chicago Water Quality Report: What’s in the Water?
Chicago’s water quality report indicates the presence of several substances such as lead, barium, copper, nitrates, coliform bacteria, and more, in the tap water. However, all substances were found to be within the allowable limit, although in the case of lead, you may want to read the fine print.
A Table of Contaminants in Chicago’s Tap Water in 2023
Below is a table that shows the concentrations of the most common contaminants found in Chicago’s municipal water and how they fare against the EPA regulations.
|Contaminant (ppb)||Concentration (on average)||EPA standards|
Lead Could Be a Concern in Chicago Tap Water
Lead in water results from household plumbing corrosion and natural deposits. In Chicago’s tap water, lead levels were found to be 5.6 parts per billion (ppb) at the highest test, which is below the 15ppb allowable limit.
While the levels discovered are below the actionable limit (the limit where municipalities should start changing their pipelines), no level of lead exposure is considered safe, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lead is even more of a concern for young children since 40-60% of an infant’s lead exposure comes from their drinking water. Parents are advised to use filters for drinking tap water at home and also to make sure that daycares and schools where their children attend are also filtering their water if water tests show lead to be an issue at those locations.
The city of Chicago is working to address the issue of lead pipes in its aging water system by running a Lead Service Line Replacement program. In the meantime, corrosion control chemicals are being added to water in an effort to minimize the levels of lead. Considering that the levels were 9.1ppb in 2020 reports, we can conclude that these programs are effective and significantly improve the quality of water in Chicago.
That being said, we should note that lead water contamination was the main cause of the popular flint water crisis in Flint, Michigan. So, it’s best to take measures to protect yourself against the possibility.
Other Substances Found in Chicago’s Water: Barium, Copper, Nitrate, and Bacteria
Nitrate is a powerful toxin that can lead to serious health problems for infants and children. Coliform bacteria are mostly harmless, except for one type of coliform bacteria – Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is usually the best indicator of fecal pollution and pathogens in water.
That being said, none of these contaminants are at dangerous levels in Chicago’s water:
- Barium’s highest level detected was 20.1ppb, while 2,000ppb is the allowed limit. Barium comes from the discharge of drilling wastes and metal refineries as well as natural deposits.
- Copper was found at a maximum level of 91ppb, while 1,300ppb is the threshold that requires action. Copper can get into water from corrosion of household plumbing, wood preservatives, and natural deposits.
- Nitrates were found at a maximum level of 420ppb, while 10,000ppb is considered safe. Nitrates come into water from runoff of fertilizer as well as leaching from septic tanks and natural deposits.
- Coliform bacteria was detected at the highest rate of 0.2%, while concentrations up to 5% are considered safe. The source of coliform in water is animal or human waste.
Chicago’s Water Also Includes Additives: Total Trihalomethanes, Haloacetic Acids, and Fluoride
Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), haloacetic acids (HAA5), and fluoride are also measured in Chicago’s tap water.
- TTHMs are by-products of chlorine that are used by municipalities for water disinfection. Although high levels of them can be carcinogenic, the local governments are careful not to surpass the EPA standards of 80 ppb. There’s no concern for TTHMs in Chicago as there are only 29.8 ppb of them present in the tap water.
- Similar to TTHMs, HAA5 is carcinogenic and is quite common in city water everywhere. It’s found both naturally and as a disinfection byproduct. Chicagoans have nothing to worry about, though, as the 13.1 ppb of HAA5 found in their tap water is well below the EPA threshold of 60ppb.
- Fluoride is added to water by the authorities to promote teeth health, but when it’s over 4,000 ppb, it might cause problems in bone growth as well as teeth health. Chicagoan authorities are extremely careful not to breach this limit, and there’s only 770 ppb of it in Chicago’s tap water.
Does Chicago Have Hard Water?
According to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), water hardness levels are as follows:
- 0 – 60ppm hardness: soft
- 61 – 120ppm hardness: moderately hard
- 121 – 180ppm hardness: hard
- >180: very hard.
So, Chicago’s tap water is considered to be hard. The hardness is measured at 148ppm, which is well into the hard range but is still lower than the Illinois state average of 200ppm.
If you’re unsure about your water hardness level, we recommend you to send your water sample to a certified water testing lab like Simplelab Technologies.
Where Does Chicago Get Its Water From?
Chicago’s tap water comes from Lake Michigan. Water from the lake enters the intake crib at a depth of 20-30 feet before going through a treatment process prior to entering the public water supply.
How Tap Water is Treated in Chicago
Chicago’s tap water goes through a multi-step treatment process before it is distributed to the citizens.
This process includes the following steps:
- Passing through eight screens to filter out debris
- First chemical treatment
- Flocculation process to clump sediment together
- Settling basins to allow sediment to settle out of the water
- Filtration through sand and gravel
- Final chemical application
Chemicals used to treat tap water in Chicago include:
- Chlorine – to disinfect
- Aluminum sulfate – to coagulate impurities
- Blended polyphosphate – to coat pipes to minimize lead leaching
The amount of chemicals used to treat Chicago water is approximately 15 ppm or, in other words, around a teaspoon per 100 gallons of water.
Does Chicago Have the Cleanest Tap Water?
Does Chicago Have the Cleanest Tap Water?
While official tests have shown Chicago’s water to be clean, it’s not the cleanest water city in the country due to the network of pipes that deliver water to homes.
A 2018 drinking water analysis by Chicago Tribune looked at samples of tap water from 2,797 homes and found that 30 percent of those samples contained a concentration of lead above 5 ppb, which is the highest level the U.S. Food & Drug Administration will allow in bottled water.
Furthermore, some level of lead was found in almost 70 percent of tap water samples, and while the EPA action limit for lead in water is 15ppb, there is no proven threshold for what is considered “safe” to drink. Another EPA article on the matter, for instance, asserts that there should be no lead whatsoever in drinking water.
Aging lead pipes could be a contributing factor to a higher lead level in tap water in households than the water at the testing sites. Until 1986, the city of Chicago required that service pipes running from mains under the streets into homes be lead pipes. That practice was banned by Congress in 1986, but many miles of these pipes still exist and are leaching lead into water. The additives put in water may help the problem, but they are, unfortunately, not eliminating it completely.
So, the safest and most logical course of action for Chicagoans is to take matters into their own hands by installing a filtration device that’s effective against lead.
Do People Drink Tap Water in Chicago?
Many people drink tap water in Chicago, though around 20% of the population relies mainly on bottled water for drinking. It isn’t known how many households choose to filter their tap water before drinking it.
If you are concerned about lead in your tap water, the EPA issued advice to Chicago residents regarding how they can minimize the levels of lead in their drinking water.
Safety concerns aside, the water in Chicago tastes great for most of the year, though, during the hotter months, algae can cause a distasteful “rotting moss” flavor. While the taste is unappealing, the algae is harmless.
Chicago’s tap water is mostly safe, and it has no trace of dangerous contaminants like arsenic or cyanide. Other dangerous metals and chemicals like copper, barium, or HAA5 are also soundly within the limits stipulated by EPA standards.
However, similar to many cities across the United States, there’s lead in the water due to old piping systems. Although the local government is running their own programs to take care of the lead contamination for good, there’s still a long way to go.
So, to be completely safe, we recommend Chicagoans who’re residing in old houses or whose houses are connected to pipelines that were constructed before the 1980s to filter their water.