Copper is a mineral and metallic element that’s essential to human health. Too much copper in water is known to have unwanted side effects. This glossary discusses everything you need to know about copper in drinking water, including how copper gets into water, the copper levels that are considered safe, and how to protect your family from excess copper in water.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What is Copper?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Copper?
- 🚰 How Does Copper Get Into Drinking Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Copper in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Copper is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Copper in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Copper?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What is Copper?
💡 Copper is a mineral needed for many bodily functions, including making energy and blood vessels, maintaining immune and nervous systems, and supporting brain development. The average adult needs about 900 mcg of copper daily.
Copper is found naturally in some foods and water, and has a number of industrial uses. Electrical equipment like motors and pipes often contain copper because it conducts electricity and heat well. Copper is also used to make kitchen sinks, door knobs, table tops, jewelry, railings, and musical instruments.
|In Water As||Cu2+|
|Sources||Surface runoff and soil seepage
Corrosion of household plumbing
|Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs)||US EPA: 1.3 mg/L
WHO Guideline: 2.0 mg/L
EWG: 1.3 mg/L; 0.3 mg/L (California)
|Potential Health Risks||Nausea and Vomiting
Headaches and Fever
Stomach cramps or Diarrhea
Nose and throat irritation
Risk of liver and kidney failure
Ion Exchange Water Softeners
Acid Neutralizing Systems
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Copper?
In low levels, copper isn’t just good for us – it’s essential to our health. However, according to Healthline, exposure to significantly higher-than-average copper concentrations in drinking water could lead to the following short-term health effects:
- Stomach cramps
- Nose and throat irritation
Continued excessive copper exposure in drinking water could lead to copper poisoning, with the following symptoms:
- Sudden mood changes
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin
- Heart failure
- Brain damage
- Kidney failure
- Liver damage or failure
The health effects of copper depend on your water consumption, your body’s copper absorption, and the concentration of ingested copper in your body.
🚰 How Does Copper Get Into Drinking Water?
Copper is found naturally in the earth. It can also be found in the air, dust, and soil due to industrial activity.
How exactly does copper enter drinking water? Copper in the environment naturally leaches into water sources, like lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers, through surface runoff and soil seepage. Water containing dissolved copper then makes its way to drinking water distribution systems. While some copper may be removed from water during treatment, low levels of copper may linger.
The most likely cause of copper in tap water is the corrosion of household plumbing. The pipes, faucets, and plumbing fixtures in your household plumbing system may be made from copper. When water travels through your plumbing system, it will absorb some of the copper, leading to elevated copper levels. Copper leaching is especially likely in acidic water with a low pH.
Related: Does salt water corrode copper?
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Copper in Drinking Water?
Yes, water treatment facilities are legally obliged to test for, monitor, and reduce copper levels in public water supplies.
Facilities follow guidelines from several national organizations:
- The World Health Organization (WHO) has a guideline of 2.0 mg/L in drinking water.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an action level of 1.3 mg/L in drinking water.
The guidelines produced by these national organizations are based on research and testing into the potential adverse health effects of copper. The guidelines and action levels are deemed to be the level at which copper may become dangerous for human consumption.
The Environmental Protection Agency monitors public water suppliers and may request testing data from facilities at any time. Some states have their own more stringent guidelines for copper removal in public water systems.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Copper is in My Drinking Water?
There are two obvious signs that your tap water contains copper: your water’s taste and whether or not you notice staining in your plumbing system.
Water with high copper levels may leave blue-green stains on fixtures, such as in your sinks, in your toilet bowl, and around your faucets. Your water may also have a blue or green tinge or blue floating bits, especially if you live in a new-build home.
Copper also has a metallic taste, especially in high concentrations. If you have copper plumbing, you’ll probably notice that your drinking water has a bitter taste.
You might know by taste or sight whether or not your water contains copper. But the only way to find out how much copper is in your water is to test it.
Private laboratory water testing is the most thorough means of testing for copper in tap water. Laboratories require one or several water samples and perform in-house water testing for a set list of contaminants. A test report provides in-depth information about your water’s dissolved copper levels, the potential health risks of this amount of copper, and the best water treatment methods to reduce copper in your water supply.
If you get your water from a public supplier, you can also review your Water Quality Report to get an idea of how much copper your water contains. Keep in mind that this report won’t account for copper that may enter your water from the service lines in your water distribution system, or the plumbing in your home.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Copper in Drinking Water?
The easiest way to protect your family from copper in tap water is to install a water treatment system in your home.
Keep in mind that it’s common for household pipes to release copper into your water, especially if water sits in the pipes before you use it. For this reason, it’s best to install a water filter as close to your kitchen faucet as possible.
The most effective methods of removing copper from water are:
- Reverse osmosis – This type of system can remove up to 98% of copper from drinking water. Reverse osmosis combines a semi-permeable membrane with a sediment filter and one or two carbon filters to reduce total copper, other heavy metals, chemicals, bacteria, and virtually all other total dissolved solids. Most RO systems are point-of-use units for under-sink or countertop use.
- Distillation – A distiller boils water, causing it to evaporate. The evaporated water collects in a separate container, while the majority of contaminants – including up to 99% of copper – remain in the boiling chamber. Distillation is a highly effective method of water purification, but it’s a long process, taking hours to produce a single batch of clean water.
- Water softener – A water softener is predominantly used to remove calcium and magnesium hardness minerals, but this system can also reduce copper levels in water. Water softeners are best used for hard water with low copper concentrations, and aren’t suitable for treating high levels of copper.
- Acid neutralizing system – An acid neutralizer uses a substance like soda ash to increase water’s pH and reduce certain contaminants, like copper. These systems are often installed as point of entry units, so they’re not ideal if your plumbing system contains copper.
Learn more about each of these methods in our full guide on how to remove copper from drinking water
If you test your water and discover dangerously high copper levels, switch to bottled water while you decide on the best system to remove copper from your water supply.
Hot water dissolves copper more easily than cold water, so avoid consuming hot water straight from your faucets. Instead, boil cold water and wait for it to cool enough for making hot drinks, food, or baby formula.
Finally, you may also consider replacing your pipes if you discover that copper corrosion in your plumbing is the main source of copper in your water.
Copper pipes are considered safer than old pipes (such as those made from lead), but they’re not as safe as PEX pipes and plastic pipes, such as CPVC. However, for most people, the cost of replacing copper pipes or plumbing systems will be much higher than the cost of using water filtration to remove copper.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Copper?
The main source of copper is our drinking water. However, there are several other factors that may contribute to exposure to high copper concentrations:
- Copper-rich foods – Some foods are naturally rich in copper. Potatoes, shellfish, peas, seeds, legumes, liver meat, whole grains, peanuts butter, dark chocolate, and green vegetables all contain trace amounts of copper
- Overuse of dietary supplements – Taking copper supplements when you don’t need them could increase your copper intake beyond a healthy level, leading to elevated levels of copper in your blood
- Some medical creams – Topical creams with a copper concentration could result in copper toxicity, especially with overuse
- Industrial occupations – Some job roles, such as those in power stations, smelters, and incinerators, have an increased likelihood of exposure to elevated levels of copper and other toxic substances in the air
- Copper dishes or drinkware – Rarely, serving drinks in corroding copper drinkware, cooking on corroded copper cookware, or eating off rusting copper plates could cause copper to leach into your foods.
Certain medical conditions can affect your ability to filter copper properly out of your blood. These include hepatitis, liver disease, Wilson’s disease, thyroid issues, and rheumatoid arthritis. While having a medical condition won’t increase your exposure to copper, it may cause low levels of copper compounds to gradually build up in your body.
📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
Visit the websites below to learn more about copper in drinking water: