Copper as a Water Contaminant
Copper is a metallic element that is essential to human health. Too little is unhealthy and too much
can lead to copper poisoning. The body cannot synthesize copper so the human diet must supply
regular amounts for absorption. The daily requirement is about 2 mg of copper intake per day to
maintain a balance of 75-100mg in the adult body2
. In the UK, it is now recommended that the daily
intake should range from 0.4 mg/day for 1-3 year old children to 1.2 mg/day for adults4
intake of copper should not exceed 12 mg/day for adult males and 10 mg/day for adult females4
Recent surveys show only 25% of the US population consume the amount of copper per day estimated
to be adequate by the US Food and Nutritional Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Ironically,
the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported cases of copper poisoning.
Benefits from Copper: Copper combines with certain proteins to produce enzymes that act as
catalysts to help a number of body functions. Some help provide energy required by biochemical
reactions. Others are involved in the transformation of melanin for pigmentation of the skin and still
others help to form cross-links in collagen and elastin and thereby maintain and repair connective
tissue. This is especially important for the heart and arteries.
Copper Deficiency: Children on diets deficient in copper have ineffective collagen synthesis, and
may develop bone disease. Subclinical copper deficiency has been suggested as a risk factor for
cardiovascular disease. People with Menkes disease, in which there is a failure of copper transport in
the intestinal mucosa, show mental retardation, depigmentation, severe anemia and bone problems.
Copper Poisoning: Acute copper poisoning can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea,
gastrointestinal illness, abdominal and muscle pain. Severe cases of copper poisoning have led to
anemia, liver poisoning, and kidney failure3, 4
Copper in water exists as a divalent ion, Cu+2. Levels over 0.05 mg/L are not naturally encountered
. The presence of copper in water can be from industrial discharges or from copper
salts used for algae control in reservoirs. Since copper is a common plumbing material, another source
for copper is at the point of use due to corrosion.
Sources of copper:
Copper salts used for algae control in reservoirs
Copper plumbing materials due to corrosion
Potential Health Affects:
Acute copper poisoning: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal
illness, abdominal and muscle pain.
Severe cases of copper poisoning have led to anemia, liver poisoning,
and kidney failure.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported two
outbreaks of copper poisoning in Florida involving 37 people during 1997-1998. The first case involved
two people becoming ill after consuming fruit drink made with tap water. Improper wiring and plumbing
procedures caused leaching of copper from restaurant piping. Copper levels reached 3.6 mg/L in the
tap water after leaching. The second case involved 35 persons in one community with gastrointestinal
illness. A defective check valve and a power outage led to a malfunction at a water treatment facility.
High levels of sulfuric acid corroded the pipes and leached copper into the system. Copper levels of 33
mg/L and 138 mg/L with pH<6 were found in two water samples collected on the day of the
. The CDC reported two cases in Wisconsin where elevated copper levels in tap water
were associated with gastrointestinal illness. The first case in September 1995 involved 22 people; the
second case in October 1995 involved 15 people. The homes in the community had recently been built
or remodeled and new copper plumbing was thought to have contributed to the contamination of the
The Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services reported a case of methemoglobinemia in
an infant during 1992 that was associated with ingestion of nitrate and copper-containing water. The
symptoms described in the report appeared to have been induced by simultaneous exposure to copper
and nitrates at levels close to federal drinking water standards. Copper is an effective emetic and
gastrointestinal irritant, and concentrations in the 2.8-7.8 mg/L range have been associated with
vomiting and diarrhea among adults and school age children. The dose required to cause acute
symptoms in infants is unknown and children aged less than 1 year may be more sensitive to copper
than older persons. Elevated copper levels in water used to prepare an infant’s formula may cause
loose stools and vomiting after eating.1
Other adverse health effects from copper are associated with a genetic disorder known as Wilson’s
Disease. This genetic defect causes copper to accumulate in the liver, brain and other vital organs
immediately after birth which eventually results in hepatitis, psychiatric, or neurologic symptoms. It is
fatal unless detected early. According to the Wilson Disease Association6
this disease affects
approximately one in 30,000 people worldwide. When diagnosed early, Wilson’s disease is treatable
and most people with the disease live normal lives.
Copper levels may be reduced at the point of entry by water softening. If copper is present due to
corrosion, the copper corrosion may be controlled at the point of entry with a neutralizing system or with
Since copper corrosion carries with it the possibility of lead dissolution, it is preferred to reduce
copper from drinking water at the point of use with reverse osmosis (RO) or distillation.
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