Is Wilmington Water Safe To Drink? (According to Data)

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Is the water in Wilmington, NC safe to drink? What’s going on with Wilmington’s drinking water? Where does Wilmington water come from, and are there any contaminants in the City’s water supply that exceed national and federal regulations for safety?

In this guide to Wilmington’s water quality and safety, we’ve answered all these questions and more.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • The drinking water in Wilmington, North Carolina is considered generally safe to drink.
  • The City of Wilmington water contains 56 contaminants, but none of these exceed guidelines set by the EPA.
  • Controversially, the EPA currently doesn’t regulate PFAS (the organization is in the process of establishing an MCL for the contaminant), but Wilmington’s water was found to be heavily polluted with PFAS in 2017.
  • The 3 biggest problem contaminants in Wilmington drinking water are chromium, disinfection byproducts, and radium.

🚰 Can You Drink Wilmington Tap Water?

Yes, you can technically drink Wilmington tap water because the water is treated to remove contaminants down to legal trace amounts.

We say “technically” because Wilmington’s history with PFAS contamination (see below) proves that being legally compliant doesn’t necessarily mean that water is safe to drink.

Like all public water systems, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (which provides Wimington’s drinking water) treats its water to remove contaminants and kill microorganisms, according to guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The contaminants that are currently regulated by the EPA were all found in concentrations lower than the EPA maximum allowances in Wilmington’s water.

That means that, on the surface, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is doing everything it should to make the City’s drinking water safe.

However, the Authority did have a few violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the April 30, 2019 – June 30, 2022 period according to the most recent EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database. These violations were for monitoring turbidity and for failure to report under the Consumer Confidence Rule. None of these violations were health-based (so they didn’t affect water quality) and have all been resolved.

Despite Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s compliance with EPA guidelines, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll happily drink the City’s water – especially as organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) believe that the EPA’s regulations are too lenient.

The EWG has produced its own stricter Health Guidelines for EPA-regulated contaminants – as well as some contaminants that don’t currently have legal restrictions – based on its research into their potential health effects. We can see from the EWG’s Tap Water Database for Wilmington that there are over 50 trace contaminants detected in the City’s water (more on these later).

Lead is one of the major contaminants affecting tap water quality, so let’s quickly look at how this drinking water contaminant may impact the safety of the water in Wilmington.

While its use in water pipes and distribution systems is now banned, lead was commonly used for this purpose several decades ago. For this reason, many local tap water supplies contain lead, which leaches from underground pipes.

Wilmington has had some issues with lead in the past. The City is required to regularly test its water for lead under the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, and in 2019, elevated levels of lead were detected in the pipes leading to some homes in New Hanover County.

Getting water sample from Wilmington tap

However, the Cape Fear Public Water Authority currently has a Corrosion Control Program in place across its three water systems: the Richardson Water System, the Sweeney Water System, and the Monterey Heights Water System. This program oversees the use of a food additive called orthophosphate, which is added during water treatment and coats the insides of pipes and plumbing fixtures to reduce lead corrosion.

👨‍🔧 The safest way to protect yourself against lead contamination is to install a water filter that can remove this heavy metal.

Wilmington PFAS Contamination

We can’t talk about water safety without discussing the PFAS contamination discovered in Wilmington’s water supply in 2017.

PFAS are chemicals that are used in a number of industrial processes. They were particularly popular for manufacturing water-resistant clothing and non-stick cookware. They’re also still now used in firefighting foam, so they’re common in airports and military bases. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they linger in the environment for decades after they’re produced.

In 2017, a news article uncovered that the Fayetteville Works site, run by DuPont, had been polluting the Cape Fear River (used to supply Wilmington’s drinking water) with GenX, a toxic PFAS chemical, produced as a byproduct of the production of vinyl ethers. The City’s water utility admitted that none of the existing water treatment processes were capable of removing this contaminant.

Wilmington is accused of “ignoring” its drinking water crisis, which may in part be due to the fact that PFAS aren’t currently regulated by the EPA, so public water systems aren’t legally required to reduce these chemicals in their water supplies. Many residents developed cancer and, although there was no way to prove it, believed that drinking PFAS-contaminated water was to blame.

In response to these concerning findings, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority installed eight granular activated carbon filters in its water treatment plant in 2021. Water was tested and deemed to be “PFAS-free”, and the City continues to monitor PFAS contamination – with a new bill being passed that allows state regulators to hold PFAS polluters accountable and make them pay for water treatment and cleanup.

But for many residents, these actions are too little, too late. It’s worrying to consider how long the City might have turned a blind eye to its PFAS contamination had the initial news story not been broken and had this contaminant continued to remain unregulated.

Products that contain PFAs

🗺️ Where Does the Tap Water in Wilmington Come From?

Tap water in Wilmington is sourced from the Cape Fear River. There are also a couple of underground aquifers (Castle Hayne & PeeDee) that provide some of the City’s drinking water. Around 16 million gallons of water are delivered to homes in New Hanover County every year.

Surface water sources (such as the Cape Fear River) are more susceptible to contamination and pollution than groundwater sources because they’re exposed to air pollution and surface runoff. The Cape Fear River is a prime example of this because it was contaminated by PFAS for years due to nearby industrial pollution.

The water in Wilmington is treated at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant before being delivered around the City in the Sweeney Water System. This is the Cape Fear Public Utility’s largest water distribution system, and delivers water beyond the city to River Lights, Tarin Woods, Pine Valley, Echo Farms, the Ogden area, and other neighborhoods.

To ensure it is safe for drinking, water is treated with various treatment processes, including sedimentation, flocculation, filtration, and UV/ozone disinfection. It is then delivered to homes and businesses via the City’s distribution pipes.

Sweeney water treatment plant
source: Cape Fear Public Utility Authority

📉 Who Regulates Wilmington Drinking Water?

The City of Wilmington drinking water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Public Water Supply Section of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and managed by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA).

The EPA has established protective water regulations, called National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Water utilities, including the CFPUA, must monitor and treat their water to ensure that contaminants with health concerns are reduced to below the EPA’s enforced Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). The CFPUA conducts hundreds of tests every month according to the requirements of these regulations.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality regulates the state’s public water systems and ensures that residents receive safe, potable drinking water that adheres to federal regulations.

🧪 Wilmington Annual Water Quality Report

All public water systems must provide annual Consumer Confidence Reports, or Water Quality Reports, which share data from water quality testing throughout the year.

Wilmington’s most recent Water Quality Report, dated from January to December 2021, lists information including:

  • Where the City’s water comes from
  • How the water is treated
  • The contaminants detected in the water
  • Whether or not these contaminants exceed EPA guidelines

We can see from the Report that none of the detected contaminants were found in concentrations that violate EPA standards.

However, that doesn’t mean you want to drink them in your water. For instance, 35.9 PPB (parts per billion) of TTHMs were detected in the City’s water, which is well below the EPA’s MCL of 80 PPB – but most people would probably rather not drink even trace levels of this cancer-causing disinfection byproduct.

Some of the detected contaminants listed in the Report include:

  • Fluoride
  • Thallium
  • Bromate
  • Chlorine
  • Copper
  • Lead
  • Total trihalomethanes
  • HAA5
  • Iron
  • Manganese

It’s a good idea to read through the Report and research any contaminants that you’re concerned about. You may choose to filter your own tap water at home if you’re not pleased with the treatment provided by the City.

Tap Water Quality

☣️ Contaminants Found Above Guidelines in Tap Water in Wilmington

The EPA might deem Wilmington’s tap water safe to drink, but you might disagree. So, in this section of the guide, we’ve looked at the contaminants present in Wilmington water that exceed the Health Guidelines set by the EWG.

The EWG detected a total of 56 contaminants in Wilmington’s water. We’ve looked through a lot of EWG Tap Water Databases in the making of these guides, so we know that this is about double the average amount of total contaminants detected in a public water utility.

There are 16 contaminants found to exceed the EWG’s Health Guidelines, including:

Haloacetic acids (HAA5)† and Haloacetic acids (HAA9)†

When water is disinfected with chlorine or a similar chemical, a common type of disinfection byproduct produced is haloacetic acids. There are two types of haloacetic acids, HAA5 and HAA9, that have several known health effects including an increased risk of colon, bladder, liver, and rectal cancer. 19.6 PPB and 26.3 PPB (parts per billion) of HAA5 and HAA9 were detected in Wilmington drinking water – between 195 and 438x the EWG’s Health Advisories of 0.1 PPB and 0.06 PPB. HAA5 currently has an MCL of 60 PPB, but the EPA doesn’t yet impose a legal limit on HAA9.

Hexavalent Chromium

Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, is the most dangerous form of chromium detected in drinking water across the US. This drinking water contaminant usually pollutes water due to industrial activity and poor waste disposal and is known to cause cancer when ingested in large amounts. 0.0618 PPB of hexavalent chromium was detected in Wilmington’s drinking water – 3.1x the EWG’s Health Guideline of 0.02 PPB. Currently, there is no EPA legal limit for chromium-6 on its own – only total chromium (chromium-3 and 6) is regulated.

Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFHPA) And Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

Wilmington’s water is now treated with carbon filtration to reduce PFAS chemicals, but two types of these chemicals – PFHPA and PFOA – were still detected in trace levels by the EWG. 4.90 PPT (parts per trillion) and 1.37 PPT of these cancer-causing chemicals were present in Wilmington’s tap water – between 4.9 and 196 x the EWG’s Health Guidelines of 1 PPT and 0.007 PPT. Neither of these chemicals is currently regulated by the EPA.

Testing water quality

Radium (-226 & -228)

Radium combined refers to two types of radium – radium -226 and radium -228 – that occur naturally or due to pollution in the environment. High concentrations of these drinking water contaminants in water may cause cancer, anemia, and immune system depression. 0.20 pCi/L (picoCurie per liter) of total radium was detected in Wilmington water – 4.1x the EWG’s Health Guideline of 0.05 pCi/L. The legal limit for radium combined in drinking tap water is 5 pCi/L.

Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)†

Chlorine disinfection also results in the production of total trihalomethanes (TTHMS). These disinfection byproducts increase the risk of certain cancers, like colon and bladder cancers, if they’re present in large amounts in tap water. 41.1 PPB of TTHMs were detected in Wilmington tap water – 274x the EWG’s recommended Health Guideline of 0.15 PPB. The EPA legal limit for TTHMs is 80 PPB.

Other Disinfection Byproducts

Alongside haloacetic acids and TTHMs, disinfection byproducts, including bromate, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, chloroform, dibromoacetic acid, dibromochloromethane, dichloroacetic acid, and trichloroacetic acid, were other disinfection byproducts detected in Wilmington tap water. There aren’t currently any legal limits for most of these contaminants, but the EWG has its own recommended Health Guidelines of 0.06-o.4 PPB (which differ depending on the contaminant). The disinfectant byproducts in Wilmington’s water were detected in concentrations 12 to 195x these Guidelines.

We can see from this data that disinfection byproducts and PFAS are the main trace contaminants in Wilmington tap water. If you’re concerned about your water quality or you’re not sure you want to drink tap water in the City, conduct a water test and consider installing an at-home water filter – here are our top picks for 2024.

🧫 Main Contaminants Found in Wilmington Tap Water

There are numerous contaminants found in Wilmington’s tap water that are present in quantities that aren’t considered dangerous by the EPA or the EWG.

These contaminants include:

  • Barium – A non-toxic metal that occurs naturally in the ground; large amounts in water may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death, but low levels are considered harmless.
  • Bromide – An element that’s naturally present in the environment; has a low degree of toxicity and is considered safe if found in small amounts in water.
  • Cadmium – A toxic heavy metal that has been widely dispersed in the environment by smelting, mining, fertilizer use, and more; has a long biological half-life in the human body and may cause health effects including disrupted bone density and composition, and renal damage.
  • Fluoride – A mineral that occurs naturally but is also produced synthetically and added to many local tap water supplies (including Wilmington water) for dental health purposes; not harmful in low levels but may stain the teeth, especially in young children.
  • Manganese – A mineral that, coupled with calcium, leads to hard water effects including limescale and soap scum; has no physical health effects in naturally present levels in water.
  • Strontium – A heavy metal that the human body may confuse for calcium, causing it to replace calcium in the bones when ingested in large amounts.
  • Total chromium – The two most common types of chromium: the toxic, cancer-causing chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium) and the harmless, more environmentally-friendly chromium-3 (trivalent chromium).
  • Various chemicals in the PFAS family, including perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnA), Perfluoropentanoic Acid (PFPeA), Perfluoropentanoic Acid (PFPeA), Perfluorohexanoic Acid (PFHxA), Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and 15 more (see EWG Database for complete info); tests on laboratory animals show that PFAS can cause health effects including liver damage, increased cancer risk, and high cholesterol.
  • Vanadium – A trace element in the earth’s crust; found in naturally high levels in rocks and isn’t considered harmful when small amounts are present in water.
Limescale on faucet caused by hard water

⛲ Wilmington Drinking Water in Public Places

We know how water is sourced and treated for homes and businesses in Wilmington – but what about water in the City’s public places?

Water in public places, like bars, hotels, and restaurants, is exactly the same as the water supplied to private buildings in the City. It’s on the same distribution system, so it’s no different from the water that comes out of your tap at home.

If you’re staying at an old hotel, check with reception that your bathroom faucet water is safe to drink. Some old hotels use lead pipes and bathroom fixtures, so water isn’t guaranteed to be safe for drinking.

Restaurants in Wilmington will likely offer you free tap water on request, although they’re not legally required to do this.

You can also buy bottled water in the City’s grocery stores and supermarkets if you don’t want to drink tap water in a public place. Some bottled water products are treated with a thorough filtration method, such as a reverse osmosis system, making them cleaner than normal tap water. However, bottled water is bad for the environment, so only buy what you need.

Continue Reading: Find Out Which US States Offer the Best Quality Tap Water

💬 Frequently Asked Questions

Why can’t you drink the water in Wilmington NC?

You can drink the water in Wilmington, NC – the water is now safe to drink and adheres to federal guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, up until 2017, the City’s water contained dangerous levels of PFAS due to pollution in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. News sources from 2021 say that the river is still contaminated with these cancer-causing “forever chemicals”, but the EPA is still in the process of establishing MCLs for PFAS following a proposal issued in August 2022.

What is going on with Wilmington’s drinking water?

Wilmington’s water has been in the news in recent years because dangerous chemicals were discovered in the water due to PFAS pollution of the local Cape Fear River. Currently, the City’s water utility continues to monitor PFAS in its drinking water supply, and after installing granular activated carbon water filters in its treatment plants in a $43 million project, the water is now free from PFAS.

How do you remove GenX from water?

GenX is one of the most common chemical contaminants that was discovered in Wilmington’s water supply in 2017. If you don’t want to rely on the City to remove all GenX from your water, you should consider installing a point-of-use water filter. Various types of at-home water filters remove the chemical, including granular activated carbon (GAC) filters, reverse osmosis systems, and water distillers. If you’ve got your eye on a water filter but don’t know if it removes GenX, contact the manufacturer and ask for proof of testing.

Where does Wilmington water come from?

Wilmington water comes from the Cape Fear River.

Can you drink the tap water in Wilmington NC?

Yes, you can drink the tap water in Wilmington, NC. After disturbing findings of PFAS pollution in the City’s water, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority reacted by installing eight granular activated carbon filters in its water treatment plant in 2021, which now remove these dangerous contaminants during water treatment. The water still contains trace levels of various contaminants, but all within EPA legal limits.

Is Wilmington NC water fluoridated?

Yes, Wilmington, NC water is fluoridated and has been since August 2010. Fluoride is produced synthetically and added to public drinking water supplies because of its ability to protect the tooth enamel, preventing tooth decay and helping to reduce costs associated with dental work in the country. However, some people argue that public water shouldn’t be fluoridated because of the potential for dental and skeletal fluorosis, and other health effects.

Does Wilmington have hard water?

Water supplied to the Wilmington area is considered moderately hard. The City has an average water hardness of 70 PPM (parts per million), which may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. You might notice some signs of hard water, including limescale buildup and poor lather with soap. However, these issues shouldn’t cause major damage in your home.

  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

2 thoughts on “Is Wilmington Water Safe To Drink? (According to Data)”

    1. Avatar for Laura Shallcross

      It depends on what contaminants are in the source water coming into the home. Activated may or may not be sufficient treatment.

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