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Properties and Health Effects

Copper is a metal that occurs naturally in the environment, and also in plants and animals. Low levels of copper are essential for maintaining good health. High levels can cause harmful effects such as irritation of the nose, mouth and eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, and even death.

What is copper?
Copper is a metal that occurs naturally throughout the environment, in rocks, soil, water, and air. Copper is an
essential element in plants and animals (including humans), which means it is necessary for us to live. Therefore, plants and animals must absorb some copper from eating, drinking, and breathing. Copper is used to make many different kinds of products like wire, plumbing pipes, and sheet metal. U.S. pennies made before 1982 are made of copper, while those made after 1982 are only coated with copper. Copper is also combined with other metals to make brass and bronze pipes and faucets. Copper compounds are commonly used in agriculture to treat plant diseases like mildew, for water treatment and, as preservatives for wood, leather, and fabrics.

What happens to copper when it enters the environment?
Copper is released into the environment by mining, farming, and manufacturing operations and through waste water releases into rivers and lakes. Copper is also released from natural sources, like volcanoes, windblown dusts, decaying vegetation, and forest fires. Copper released into the environment usually attaches to particles made of organic matter, clay, soil, or sand. Copper does not break down in the environment. Copper compounds can break down and release free copper into the air, water, and foods.

How might I be exposed to copper?
You may be exposed to copper from breathing air, drinking water, eating foods, or having skin contact with copper, particulates attached to copper, or copper-containing compounds. Drinking water may have high levels of copper if your house has copper pipes and acidic water. Lakes and rivers that have been treated with copper compounds to control algae, or that receive cooling water from power plants, can have high levels of copper. Soils can also contain high levels of copper, especially if they are near copper smelting plants. You may be exposed to copper by ingesting coppercontaining fungicides, or if you live near a copper mine or where copper is processed into bronze or brass. You may be exposed to copper if you work in copper mines or if you grind metals containing copper.

How can copper affect my health?
Everyone must absorb small amounts of copper every day because copper is essential for good health. High levels of copper can be harmful. Breathing high levels of copper can cause irritation of your nose and throat. Ingesting high levels of copper can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Very-high doses of copper can cause damage to your liver and kidneys, and can even cause death.

How likely is copper to cause cancer?
We do not know whether copper can cause cancer in humans. The U.S. EPA has determined that copper is not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity.

How can copper affect children?
Exposure to high levels of copper will result in the same type of effects in children and adults. We do not know if these effects would occur at the same dose level in children and adults. Studies in animals suggest that the young children may have more severe effects than adults, but we don’t know if this would also be true in humans. There is a very small percentage of infants and children who are unusually sensitive to copper. We do not know if copper can cause birth defects or other developmental effects in humans. Studies in animals suggest that high levels of copper may cause a decrease in fetal growth.

How can families reduce the risk of exposure to copper?
The most likely place to be exposed to copper is through drinking water, especially if your water is corrosive and you have copper pipes in your house. The best way to lower the level of copper in your drinking water is to let the water run for at least 15 seconds first thing in the morning before drinking or using it. This reduces the levels of copper in tap water dramatically. If you work with copper, wear the necessary protective clothing and equipment, and always follow safety procedures. Shower and change your clothes before going home each day.

Is there a medical test to show whether I’ve been exposed to copper?
Copper is found throughout the body; in hair, nails, blood, urine, and other tissues. High levels of copper in these samples can show that you have been exposed to higherthan normal levels of copper. These tests cannot tell whether you will experience harmful effects. Tests to measure copper levels in the body are not usually available at a doctor’s office because they require special equipment, but the doctor can send samples to a specialty laboratory.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The U.S. EPA requires that levels of copper in drinking water be less than 1.3 mg of copper per one liter of drinking water (1.3 mg/L). The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set the recommended daily allowance for copper at 900 micrograms of copper per day (µg/day) for people older than eight years old. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that levels of copper in the air in workplaces not exceed 0.1 mg of copper fumes per cubic meter of air (0.1 mg/m3) and 1.0 mg/m3 for copper dusts.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2004. Toxicological Profile for Copper. Atlanta,
GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Updated: September 2004