Whether you live in Chicago or you plan to visit the City soon, you might be wondering about the safety of its drinking water. Can you drink Chicago’s tap water, and does it contain any contaminants that you should be concerned about?
We’ve answered these questions and discussed everything you should know about the safety of Chicago’s drinking water in this guide.
📌 Key Takeaways:
- The water in Chicago, IL is generally safe to drink.
- Some of the contaminants detected in Chicago drinking water include nitrate and nitrite, radium, fluoride, chromium-6, and disinfection byproducts.
- Many homes and businesses in Chicago are at risk of lead exposure due to the use of lead plumbing or a lead service line.
Table of Contents
- 🚰 Can You Drink Chicago Tap Water?
- 🗺️ Where Does the Tap Water in Chicago Come From?
- 📉 Who Regulates Chicago Drinking Water?
- 🧪 Chicago Water Quality Report
- ☣️ Contaminants Found Above Guidelines in Tap Water in Chicago
- 🧫 Main Contaminants Found in Chicago Tap Water
- ⛲️ Chicago Drinking Water in Public Places
- 💬 Frequently Asked Questions
🚰 Can You Drink Chicago Tap Water?
Yes, you can safely drink Chicago’s tap water because the City’s water utility monitors, tests, and treats the water to ensure it’s legally compliant with standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The City of Chicago Department of Water Management is responsible for treating and delivering water to Chicago residents, and must reduce certain contaminants with health effects to ensure they’re within the EPA’s legal limits.
The Chicago Gov. website gives public access to nearly 20 years of Consumer Confidence Reports for Chicago’s tap water, with data that demonstrates the City’s compliance with the EPA regulations. But that doesn’t mean that Chicago public water is completely free from all contaminants – just that certain contaminants are reduced to within EPA legal limits.
Some organizations, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), contest the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Levels, saying that they’re too lenient. The EWG has established its own non-enforceable Health Guidelines (which we’ve discussed in more detail later in this guide).
To get the best overall understanding of Chicago’s water quality, we reviewed several different test and performance data documents when producing this guide, including the City’s most recent Consumer Confidence Reports, the EWG’s Tap Water Database for The City of Chicago Department of Water Management, and public water testing data that was gathered as part of the SimpleLab City Water Project. There were a few differences in the contaminants detected by different testing bodies, likely due to testing different samples at different times.
So, what do you need to know about the safety of Chicago’s water? Is Chicago tap water safe? Yes – from a legal perspective. With that said, you might agree with organizations like the EWG that certain contaminants with health effects should have much lower legal limits.
Since lead is one of the key contaminants that comes to mind when we think of drinking water safety, we also looked into all the information we could find on Chicago’s history with lead pipes and service lines. According to a July 2023 ABC News report, 6% of some 30,000 tested home service lines in the City were found to contain lead at or above the EPA limit. The City is working to replace the 400,000 lead service lines that are estimated to exist today, and some homeowners have been able to successfully apply for the free Equity Lead Service Line Replacement scheme.
We can deduce from the scale of Chicago’s lead pipe problem that lead is still a big cause of concern in the City, especially in older homes built before 1986. You should switch to bottled water or use a water filter that can remove lead if you have any concerns about this contaminant in your drinking water.
🗺️ Where Does the Tap Water in Chicago Come From?
The main source of Chicago tap water is Lake Michigan. This scenic surface water source supplies water to Chicago’s intake crib, before tunneling underneath the lake bed and beginning treatment.
As a surface water source, Lake Michigan is more exposed to environmental pollutants and contaminants than groundwater sources. The water treatment process involves filtering water through eight screens, and treating the water with flocculation, chemical disinfection, activated carbon treatment, and sand/gravel polishing filtration. This process ensures the removal of sediment, certain chemical contaminants, and other debris, and protects the water against microbiological contamination.
The treated water is pumped into reservoirs to be stored until it’s used in the City’s distribution system. Rather than storing water in towers, Chicago uses a pumping system to deliver water under pressure to its intended destination.
Like most city water supplies today, Chicago water is fluoridated. It’s also treated with blended polyphosphate to prevent lead leaching from lead service lines.
📉 Who Regulates Chicago Drinking Water?
The drinking water in Chicago is managed and regulated by The Chicago Department of Water Management, according to the regulations established by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
The EPA has produced National Primary Drinking Water Regulations that apply to all public water systems in the US, including Chicago’s. These Regulations require water utilities to limit certain contaminants in water based on research into their possible health effects. According to the NPDWRs, water utilities must test drinking water for these contaminants and remove them if they’re detected in unsafe concentrations.
Some contaminants aren’t officially regulated by the EPA, but the organization still requires that water utilities monitor their water supplies for these impurities.
🧪 Chicago Water Quality Report
Chicago’s Gov website is the place to find Water Quality Reports, or Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs), for Chicago tap water, dating all the way back to 2005.
These Reports contain educational information regarding commonly found drinking water contaminants. They also list the contaminants detected in Chicago tap water based on testing at various locations throughout the year.
According to the most recent CCRs, contaminants commonly detected in Chicago tap water are:
- Various disinfection byproducts
- Gross alpha
CCRs are easily accessible online, so you can compare your most recent Report to previous Reports to see how your local water quality is changing over time.
☣️ Contaminants Found Above Guidelines in Tap Water in Chicago
To reiterate, the contaminants present in Chicago drinking water don’t exceed legal limits – but some of them do exceed the non-enforceable Health Guidelines set by the Environmental Working Group.
These contaminants include:
Chromium-6 (Hexavalent Chromium)
Chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, is a toxic form of chromium that has several industrial uses, despite its known health effects – it’s been linked to reproductive harm and cancer. Chromium-6 alone isn’t regulated in drinking water. Instead, the EPA regulates total chromium (several types of chromium combined), with a legal limit of 100 PPB (parts per billion). The EWG has a dedicated Health Guideline of 0.02 PPB for chromium-6.
Haloacetic Acids (HAA5) and Haloacetic Acids (HAA9)
HAA5 and HAA9 are disinfection byproducts that are also listed in the EWG Tap Water Database for Chicago’s water. These contaminants are produced due to a reaction between chemical disinfectants (like chlorine) and organic matter in the water, and may cause liver and bladder cancer with long-term exposure. EPA currently only regulates HAA5 (with a legal limit of 60 PPB). The EWG has proposed a Health Guideline for HAA5 of 0.1 PPB, and its Health Guideline for HAA9 is 0.6 PPB.
Nitrate and Nitrite
Nitrate and nitrate are two forms of nitrogen that were also detected in trace amounts in Chicago tap water. Growing evidence links nitrate and nitrite to health effects including cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy complications, and birth defects. The EWG’s Health Guideline for nitrate and nitrite is just 0.14 PPM (parts per million), while the EPA’s official Maximum Contaminant Level for these contaminants is 10 PPM.
According to the EWG Tap Water Database, radium combined (both -226 and -228) was also detected in Chicago’s tap water. Both forms of radium are thought to be cancer-causing and can accumulate in and damage the bones. The current EPA legal limit for radium combined is 5 pCi/L (picocuries per liter), while the EWG’s Health Guideline is much lower: 0.05 pCi/L.
Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) are another group of disinfection byproducts that the EWG detected in Chicago tap water. These byproducts, which include chloroform, bromidichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane, also occur due to the use of disinfection chemicals, and are thought to cause nervous system damage and cancer. The EPA currently regulates TTHMs with a legal limit of 80 PPB. The EWG proposes a lower Health Guideline of 0.15 PPB.
Other Disinfection Byproducts
Other disinfection byproducts, including dibromoacetic acid, dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, were also listed in the EWG Tap Water Database for Chicago City water. Currently, none of these byproducts are legally regulated, but the EWG has produced Health Guidelines ranging from 0.1 to 0.4 PPB to protect against their possible health effects.
🧫 Main Contaminants Found in Chicago Tap Water
Aside from the contaminants that exceed the EWG’s non-enforceable Health Guidelines, there were several other contaminants detected in Chicago water that are present in safe trace levels (according to the EPA and the EWG).
- 4-Androstene-3,17-dione – A human sex hormone. Very little information exists to tell us whether low concentrations of 4-Androstene-3,17-dione are safe, and how it might affect human health.
- Barium – An element that occurs naturally in the environment and is safe in low concentrations, but may cause cardiovascular disease and increase the likelihood of high blood pressure in large amounts.
- Fluoride – A mineral that occurs naturally and is synthetically produced for water fluoridation, which may affect bone health and cause aesthetic dental issues as a result of long periods of exposure.
- Molybdenum – A metal that occurs naturally in rocks, soils and water, which may increase levels of uric acid when large amounts are consumed over a long period.
- Strontium – A metal that occurs in various forms and accumulates in the bones. The ingestion of high concentrations of radioactive strontium has been linked to bone cancer.
- Testosterone – Another human sex hormone. Again, we don’t currently know much about the possible health effects of ingesting testosterone in drinking water.
- Total chromium – All forms of chromium combined, including chromium-3 (which is harmless) and chromium-6 (which has been linked to cancer and other health effects).
- Vanadium – A metal used in the manufacturing industries, which is safe when present in low levels in water but has several health effects (including fetal and childhood development complications) in higher levels.
- Other contaminants – Testing by SimpleLab also revealed additional contaminants in Chicago’s tap water, including VOCs (like ethylene dibromide and trichlorofluoromethane), several heavy metals (copper, and zinc), and a few non-metal inorganics.
⛲️ Chicago Drinking Water in Public Places
You can drink Chicago tap water in most public places because the majority of bars, restaurants, and hotels access the same city water supply as the residential properties. Since the Chicago water system uses treated water that legally complies with EPA Standards, it’s safe to drink regardless of whether you’re drinking from a public or private location.
Most restaurants and bars in Chicago should offer free drinking water on request, although they’re not legally obligated to do this.
Watch out for lead exposure if you’re staying in a hotel in Chicago, especially an older establishment. Lead contamination is still an issue in many old buildings in the City because of the historic use of lead plumbing components. Before you drink tap water from your hotel room, check with the hotel reception that it’s safe to do so – or drink bottled water instead.
Speaking of bottled water, you’ll find it sold at the majority of convenience stores and supermarkets in Chicago, so you have plenty of options if you prefer to avoid public drinking water to stay on the safe side.
💬 Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Chicago water so good?
Chicago drinking water quality is good because the City’s Department of Water Management performs hundreds of thousands of tests a year to ensure that the water is consistently safe to drink. With that said, tap water in Chicago is far from perfect, and many homes and establishments in the city have a lead problem, so Chicago citizens have a higher risk of lead exposure in their water.
Is there toxic lead in Chicago water?
Yes, many homes and businesses in Chicago may be exposed to low lead levels in the water. This is mostly due to the use of lead household plumbing components and water connections rather than the service lines themselves. Around 80% of homes in Chicago have water connections made from lead, according to a September 2022 article produced by the Guardian.
Is Chicago tap water filtered?
Yes, Chicago tap water is filtered through eight filtration screens, as well as an activated carbon filter, to remove sediment and debris, and reduce contaminants with health effects. Like all public water systems, Chicago doesn’t thoroughly filter its water, so trace chemicals, metals, and other contaminants remain.
Is it safe to drink Chicago sink water?
Yes, it’s safe to drink tap water from the sink in homes and public places in Chicago. There are, however, some exceptions – if your household plumbing is old and made from lead, your water may be unsafe to drink due to leaching from the lead components. Resolving this issue might be simple (for instance, you could purchase lead-free faucets if only lead faucets are the issue), or you might need to replace your entire plumbing system or the pipe that connects your home to the water distribution line.
How hard is Chicago tap water?
Chicago tap water has a fairly average hardness of around 130 to 150 mg/L or PPM, or around 7.6-8.8 grains per gallon. With this level of hardness in your water, you’ll likely notice aesthetic issues including limescale on your fixtures and appliances, and soap scum on your skin after showering or washing in your water.
Is Chicago’s drinking water fluoridated?
Yes, Chicago’s drinking water is fluoridated for the benefit of dental health (fluoride helps to prevent cavities). The City adds around 0.7 PPM of fluoride to water (this amount may vary slightly from day to day).