Everything You Need to Know About Copper in Drinking Water
While copper is an essential trace mineral that we need to survive, too much can be toxic. Here's everything you need to know about copper in drinking water.
The existence of metals in our drinking water makes the news regularly. Lead is perhaps the most common and worrisome case. Flint, Michigan found itself in the spotlight when its crisis over high amounts of lead in the drinking water carried on for years.
However, Flint is just one of thousands of cities and towns in the US affected by metals in the water supply. In fact, a Reuters investigation found that Flint didn't even rank among the worst areas.
It's safe to say that Americans are and should be worried about metal in their drinking water. But should you be concerned about copper?
The fact is that finding copper in drinking water is normal, and while that doesn't sound ideal, it's not a problem for the vast majority of Americans.
Unlike heavy metals, copper is a nutrient your body needs to function. You get most of your daily copper intake through your food, not your drinking water. But as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing, and the same applies to copper and copper poisoning from water.
If you're concerned about your local water quality, here's what you need to know about copper.
What is Copper?
Copper is a mineral found throughout the natural environment in soil, rock, sediment, and water. It's an incredibly valuable metal for humans because it's malleable and inexpensive, so we use it for all kinds of things from wiring to plumbing to the manufacturing of consumer goods.
What many of us don't realize is that copper is also crucial for our health, and it's found in many of our favorite foods, including:
- Wheat bran and cereals
- Nuts and seeds
- Cocoa and chocolate
- Liver, kidney, and other offal
Most nutrition researchers believe that you get all the copper you need (about two milligrams per day) directly from your food. Cases of copper deficiency are rare, except for in malnourished babies and in people who are fed with tubes. However, when it does occur, it can cause anemia and other health issues.
Your body uses copper in many natural processes, but its most important function is in enabling you to form red blood cells. As a result, copper helps protect your bones, joints, and teeth as well as heals wounds.
How Does Copper Make It Into My Water?
Even though copper occurs naturally, the bulk of copper in water comes from our use of copper water pipes and other plumbing materials. When your plumbing becomes corroded, the water absorbs copper directly from your pipes or even brass faucets.
The amount of copper in your drinking water typically depends on other minerals or chemicals in your water as well as characteristics of the water itself:
- Length of time spent in pipes
For example, when the water in corroded pipes is stagnant, the amount of copper increases substantially.
Because public water suppliers have and continue to use copper pipes and fixtures, they also monitor the copper levels in your water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the copper action level at 1.3 mg per liter. After this point, most water suppliers will take active steps to reduce copper exposure.
How Can You Measure the Copper in Your Drinking Water?
One sign of copper in your water is corrosion on your fixtures, which leaves a brassy color behind and begins to look blue-green. If your taps or fixtures take on these colors, then corrosion is possible.
To measure the amount of copper in your water, you need to use a testing kit or send a water sample to a lab.
If you use a utility system or get your water from your municipality, you can check the consumer confidence report (CCR) or ask the water system owner for lab results.
What About Copper Water Bottles? Are They Safe?
Reusable water bottles are all the rage — and for a good reason. They limit the amount of consumer plastic we use and encourage everyone to drink more water. Plus, they're almost like fashion accessories.
While most water bottles are made from BPA-free plastic or aluminum, a new copper water bottle trend is now taking the market by storm.
The idea is that because copper is water-soluble, your trendy bottle improves your copper intake. (It only works if your drinking water isn't far off a neutral pH.)
Because the water bottle should work as a supplement, the brands promoting it say the water bottle can:
- Improve digestion
- Strengthen your immune system
- Help your body heal wounds
- Absorb iron
- Aid thyroid health
- Encourage joint health
While those health claims may be a stretch, it's also important to know that most of these bottles should be safe to use. Researchers say that you're unlikely to get much copper — if any — from using the water bottle.
That's not to say that these water bottles are nothing more than a good looking vessel. Copper does have antibacterial properties, which is excellent for a regularly used water bottle. Most of us are guilty of not washing our bottles often enough, so we can benefit from the extra help removing bacteria.
In fact, copper is such a helpful antibacterial agent that hospitals now often use copper on light switches and door handles to kill off bacteria from touch surfaces.
Keep in mind that if you have one of the rare diseases that prevents you from metabolizing copper, you should, of course, avoid these water bottles altogether.
What Happens When There's Copper in Your Water
There are possible trace amounts of copper in all your drinking water, some of which even escapes into filtered products like soft drinks.
Still, it's challenging to get too much copper naturally. Plus, because your body recognizes copper, it regulates how much enters your bloodstream naturally. It may let the first few milligrams in, but it attempts to stagger the rest of it carefully.
However, if your water is very contaminated, then it's possible to ingest too much copper, which can lead to health issues.
Over the short-term, it may cause gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea and abdominal pain. When you get too much copper over an extended period, you may experience adverse health outcomes like:
- Poor liver function
- Poor kidney function
Are There People Who Face Increased Risk of Copper Poisoning?
Yes, patients who have Menkes or Wilson's disease can suffer more from overexposure to copper than other people. These are genetic disorders that affect the body's metabolism and result in abnormal copper absorption.
Wilson's disease, in particular, leads to the accumulation of copper in the brain, liver, and other organs. The disease is an autosomal recessive trait and is very rare. Patients with Wilson's Disease must receive treatment for the rest of their lives, but managing the disease means they can eat and drink without much worry.
Limiting Your Copy Intake: How to Avoid or Remove Copper from Your Water
Unless your local water source finds that its lab tests are positive for a copper limit over the EPA's recommended threshold, you don't need to worry about removing the copper in your water.
However, if you're still worried, there are a few simple things you can do.
When you use a tap for the first time in six or more hours, flush your plumbing system before using the water for cooking or drinking. That means running it for at least 15 seconds before using any of the water that comes out of it. Use the water you flush for washing dishes or cleaning.
Additionally, use cold tap water instead of hot for any water you want to drink or cook with. Hot water leaches the copper from your pipes and other plumbing materials more readily than cold water does.
What About Filtration?
Filtration is another option if you still have concerns or if you use a private water system (well water). Reverse osmosis, distillation, ion exchange, and ultra-filtration can all treat water from the faucet.
We recommend using an NSF-certified filter. The NSF also offers a database of product models that explain what each model does.
Boiling water, however, won't work. In fact, you should avoid doing it altogether if you worry about consuming copper because the boiling process evaporates water and in turn increase the concentration of the metal.
Copper in Your Drinking Water: Don't Worry About It
For the vast majority of people in America, there's no problem with finding copper in drinking water. Your body uses copper to make red blood cells, and unless you have a disease that prevents you from metabolizing copper, it's difficult to get copper poisoning.
That being said, it's a good idea to be aware of what's in your water. If you're curious about the level of copper — or anything else — in your water, ask your municipality for test results or send a sample of your water away for testing.
Are you looking for an easy way to filter and purify your drinking water? Check out our guide to water filter pitchers.
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