gallery Dear Mayor Emanuel, here’s how you can fix Chicago’s tap water

Aside from corroded plumbing pipes contaminating our water, most of our water sources have been corrupted by toxic chemicals. On top of this, the process by which most U.S. cities purify water is causing more harm than good.

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming Wecology Handbook:

Cleaning up Chicago’s Tap Water, A Proposal for Mayor Emanuel

Lately there’s been quite an outcry to boycott the bottle and embrace the tap. I’m all for creating less pollution, yet I think I’m not alone in having a hard time swallowing the notion that tap water is safe for drinking. Believe me, like you I’d rather not spend my money on bottled water and contribute to the pollution and transport toll that comes with it. I feel guilty every time I buy a bottle of water, but I cringe when I consider the alternative. When tap water comes to mind, consider this: The facts prove that there are innumerable types of waste and pervasive toxic chemicals present in our water—substances that even the most modern pumping station can’t eradicate. Worse, tap water is loaded with carcinogenic byproducts resulting from chlorine and ammonia disinfection methods.

Tap or Bottled: which Water is Best?

If purified properly, tap water would indeed be the best option. However, water samples indicate that our methods of filtration remain ineffective despite the fact that Chicago has spent a fortune modernizing its water pumping stations. Chicago and most cities in the United States utilize sanitizing methods that simply do not produce the safest drinking water. On the other hand, we certainly have reason to question bottled water’s feasibility, as questions about source reliability, leaching of chemicals and phthalates, fossil fuel pollution involved with transport, wasteful use of resources, and plastic pollution all abound. Nonetheless, bottled water in many situations represents a healthier choice.

Chicago’s tap water comes from Lake Michigan. Although it looks beautiful, Lake Michigan has long served as a dumping ground for many industries and towns. For instance, BP’s refinery in Gary, Indiana dumps ammonia, lead, nickel, and mercury. Milwaukee has admitted that to circumvent heavy storm drainage problems, it had to dump (on more than one occasion) millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the lake. Sewage even when treated presents a persistent problem as drugs that people ingest and household chemicals poured down the drain remain despite our technological advances in filtering. This is perhaps the most startling finding from recent water studies—the discovery of the unmentionables–personal care products, drugs, and pharmaceuticals in tap water.   How we filter and purify water is not enough to remove these residues. Scientists are still unsure of how many side effects might result from long-term exposure, for never before have people been exposed to such an array of random chemicals and drugs like that found in tap water.

Chemical Therapy, the Truth about Disinfection Byproducts

To get a sense of how our tap water ends up being even more dangerous, follow the science: Cities throughout the country, Chicago included, use chlorine and ammonia (chloramines) to “purify” water. These in turn create seriously harmful disinfection byproducts (DBPs).

When chlorine is mixed with water that has any type of organic matter, such as leaves or dirt, cancer-causing halocetic acids, MX, and trihalomethanes (THMs) like chloroform are created. THMs are released through hot chlorinated water vapors. This means that time spent taking a shower or doing the dishes could be hazardous to your health. Scientists are learning that gene mutator MX is 170 times more potent and dangerous than chloroform!

Using ammonia to prepare water for drinking is a terrible idea as well. Though recently approved by the EPA, this method creates iodoacids. Michael Plewa, A genetic toxicologist at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus and fellow scientists have identified iodoacids as the most toxic disinfection byproduct yet discovered in that they damage DNA! When combined, these disinfection byproducts cause and contribute to cancer, allergies, production of free radicals, wreck normal blood vessels and cause plaque build-up, contribute to heart attacks and strokes, anemia, nervous system disorders, birth defects, and miscarriages. To make it crystal clear, here is a chart from the EPA indicating some of the hazards of water disinfectants. (You can view the entire chart at


Contaminant Potential Health Effects from Ingestion of Water Sources of Contaminant in Drinking Water
Bromate Increased risk of cancer Byproduct of drinking water disinfection
Chlorite Anemia; infants & young children: nervous system effects Byproduct of drinking water disinfection
Haloacetic acids (HAA5) Increased risk of cancer Byproduct of drinking water disinfection
Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs) Liver, kidney or central nervous system problems; increased risk of cancer Byproduct of drinking water disinfection


Contaminant Potential Health Effects from Ingestion of Water Sources of Contaminant in Drinking Water
Chloramines (as Cl2) Eye/nose irritation; stomach discomfort, anemia Water additive used to control microbes
Chlorine (as Cl2) Eye/nose irritation; stomach discomfort Water additive used to control microbes
Chlorine dioxide (as ClO2) Anemia; infants & young children: nervous system effects Water additive used to control microbes

(One other tiny issue regarding water that we’ll discuss in the future is Illinois’ mandatory fluoridation of the public water supply–equally harmful to us).

By adding these dangerous chemicals, our city actually makes tap water worse. Instead of using chlorine and ammonia to clean our water ineffectively and leaving harmful chemicals behind, we can employ a method that makes our water perfectly safe—so safe in fact that we could drink tap water without concern, assuming of course the plumbing pipes leading to the tap are in good shape. This beautiful toxin-free method is reverse osmosis coupled with carbon block microfiltration and ultraviolet light.

The Solution for Terrific No Nonsense Tap Water

Mayor Emanuel, I hereby propose that Chicago invest in Reverse Osmosis system coupled with carbon block. In Europe and Asia reverse osmosis systems have proven to be far more beneficial for the health of people and the health of the environment. In fact, this type of system makes water so much better for drinking that the tiny town of Madison, Minnesota became the first to make the transition in the U.S.  Since then towns like Geneva, Illinois, as well as Orange County, California and the Tampa Bay area have made the transition to reverse osmosis. Without question, the idea is well suited for exploration here. Think of the cost savings as well as the reduction in pollution and disease.

This investment in clean water filtration makes sense financially and is by far the healthiest and safest method. If revamping the city’s sanitizing process is not on your radar, please review the chemicals used in the water filtration process and ask yourself if they are doing more harm than good? If you still don’t have interest in making this investment, perhaps you’d consider providing financial assistance to Chicago residents to install reverse-osmosis filters in every household. This is a far less efficient way to achieve clean water, but clean water is something we all deserve. In fact, to reduce pollution and improve peoples’ health, why not require that every dwelling, business, and school have reverse osmosis systems installed by 2017? While using a filtered pitcher like those found at the supermarket may seem like a safe, inexpensive route to cleaner water, these pitchers do not remove what most needs to be removed.


Think of the possibilities. With this one decision, you have the ability to make bottled water truly obsolete while also proving Chicago’s commitment to eliminating pollution and protecting our water resources. This undertaking might be your greatest and most remembered contribution to this City. You’ll be doing right for the people of Chicago and improving the health of our environment all with one simple decision. You could make Chicago the greenest city in America, leading the way by making available that which is essential for our health and well being—clean water! In the meantime, perhaps you could revoke the bottled water tax, which is completely unjust for those of us trying to make healthy choices. Perhaps it makes more sense for the residents of Chicago to refuse paying their water bill until safer sanitation processes are put in place. As shocking as it may be, that is the green reality!

Thank you for your consideration.


The Wecologist, Joanna Kappele

Find out what’s in your water:

Revised 2016 (originally proposed to Mayor Daley in 2008 and published in indy media Chicago)

tap water, chicago tap water, water pollution, tap water contamination, clean tap water, proposal for mayer emanuel, wecologist, wecology
clean up the tap
Lake Michigan, chicago tap water, wecologist, wecology, wecology handbook, hippocrateas, joanna kappele, tap water
View from Montrose Beach