Problems We Found With Chicago Drinking Water



Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Analyst   

**Updated June 30, 2021 to include most recent data

With drinking water in the national spotlight, we want to make sure our readers have the most up-to-date information available. This article includes updated data from the 2020 Consumer Confidence Report for the city of Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago's Polluted Source Water: Lake Michigan

The City of Chicago draws raw drinking water from Lake Michigan and treats it at two water treatment plants. The Jardine Water Purification Plant provides water for the northern areas of the City and suburbs, and the Sawyer Water Purification Plant is responsible for servicing the southern areas of the City and suburbs. Lake Michigan has a long history of pollution problems, including a recent chromium 6 release from an abutting steel facility According to the most recent available Source Water Assessment prepared by the Illinois EPA, all 64 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline had been categorically assessed as “not supporting primary contact and fish consumption.” This designation is due to high levels of E.Coli, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and mercury throughout Lake Michigan.

Lead Contamination In Chicago Tap Water

Lead enters tap water through older lead service pipes and lead-containing plumbing, soldered joints, and fixtures. Lead is unique because unlike other contaminants in Chicago drinking water, it doesn't originate in the source water. In Chicago, about 70% of water service lines city-wide are made of lead, so a large portion of the population should consider taking steps to ensure their family's safety. Several investigative reports by large media outlets have been highly critical of Chicago’s lead testing program. The Chicago Tribune reported that many of the sites selected for lead testing were strategically selected because they are in areas with low risk for lead contamination, often at the homes of current and former water department. The City argued that recruiting water department employees to collect samples would ensure that samples were properly collected. However, in a different story published by The Guardian, Chicago city employees were criticized for using sampling “cheats” that make lead concentration seem lower than they really are. Even so, according to the most recent Chicago data, 10% of samples analyzed for lead in Chicago were over 9.1 parts per billion. Though Chicago's water quality is technically in compliance with federal regulations, health and regulatory organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, Environmental Protection Agency and Center for Disease Control, all agree that there is no safe level of lead for children. We highly recommend that Chicago residents with internal lead plumbing filter their drinking water. If you chose not to filter your drinking water for lead, we recommend letting your water run for 5 minutes before drinking or cooking. Chicago also has a free lead testing program, that you can find more information about here. Hydroviv Undersink filters are NSF/ANSI 53 certified to remove lead from drinking water.

Chromium 6 Contamination In Chicago Tap Water

Between 2013-2015, Chicago reported that chromium 6 concentrations averaged 200 parts per trillion. Chromium 6 is a known human carcinogen, made public by the movie staring Julia Roberts, "Erin Brockovich." Although chromium 6 is not regulated by EPA, the levels reported in Chicago's tap water are roughly 20 times higher than what is considered to have a negligible impact on rick on cancer. It’s no surprise that Chicago has elevated chromium 6 because of the various types of industry throughout the region, including tanneries, chromate production facilities, stainless steel welding, textile manufacturing, and electroplating. In 2017, U.S. Steel dumped an “undisclosed” amount of chromium 6 into a tributary of Lake Michigan. A small settlement of $600,000 was granted to cover mitigation costs from the spill. Hydroviv undersink filters remove chromium 6 from drinking water.

Lake Michigan Is Susceptible To PFAS Contamination

Per and Polyfluoalkyl Substances (PFAS), have been detected in various U.S. cities including Grand Rapids, Cleveland, and Colorado Springs. PFAS exposure has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, lowered fertility rates, and development problems in children. This category of contaminants is not yet regulated by EPA, meaning municipalities are not required to test for it. According to a recent water quality report, PFAS was detected in Grand Rapids drinking water, which also draws entirely from Lake Michigan (two straws drawing from the same cup). Lake Michigan is susceptible to PFAS contamination because of its use in firefighting foam, manufacturing of water/fire resistant fabrics, food packaging and other non-stick surfaces. We expect to see information emerge in the near future about PFAS in Lake Michigan. If you'd like to find a water filter that removes PFAS from tap water, check out this Duke/NC State PFAS study. 

Radium in Chicago’s Drinking Water

Radium is formed when uranium and thorium undergo radioactive decay in the environment. Two of the main radium isotopes found in the environment are radium-226 and radium-228. Radium in drinking water is of primary concern because this may cause cancer, kidney damage and birth defects. Radium levels in 2020 were reported to be up to 0.95 ppb with the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level Goal 5 ppb.

Disinfection Byproducts (DBPs) In Chicago Drinking Water

Disinfection Byproducts or DBPs are a category of emerging contaminants, that form when chlorine-based disinfectants react with naturally-occurring organic matter. EPA only regulates two variations of DBPs: Total Trihalomethanes (THHMs) and Haloacetic Acids 5 (HAA5), both of which were detected in Chicago drinking water. According to EPA, this category of contaminant is associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer, as well as kidney, liver, and central nervous system problems.

Chlorine Makes Chicago Tap Water Taste Bad

Like most other municipalities in the U.S., Chicago disinfects its drinking water with chlorine to protect residents from waterborne illnesses. While not typically considered to be harmful on its own, many people find that removing chlorine from drinking water greatly enhances its taste and odor. Water in Chicago can often taste and smell like chlorinated pool water, while also creating harmful DBPs.

Still Have Questions About Chicago Tap Water?

Hydroviv is a water filtration company that uses water quality data to optimize water filters for each city’s water. The Chicago water pollution issues that we list above are what we consider to be “points of emphasis” so we can design and build the best water filter for Chicago tap water, but all of our water filters provide broad protection against other contaminants commonly found in drinking water (e.g. VOCs, lead, solvents, pesticides, mercury).
If you’re interested in learning more about water filters that have been optimized for Chicago's drinking water problems, feel free to visit, reach out by email ( or through our live chat. We also frequently post water-related news on 
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