We either love or hate the look of brand new copper piping, but more importantly, what do you know about the presence of copper in drinking water? It turns out that copper, while having some health benefits, can also present a range of side effects if ingested in high concentrations.
1. What is the role of copper in the human body?
Copper plays a vital role in keeping us healthy and strong. Its functions range from producing red blood cells to forming collagen and elastin which keep the hair, skin, and blood vessels functioning optimally. This essential mineral also acts as an important partner-in-crime for numerous enzymes that again, have a wide range of functions such as metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis, and production of energy.
The NIH recommends that men should have about 1.4mg of copper per day, and women should have around 1.1mg. This is a small enough amount that it can come from healthy eating as it would form a part of a balanced diet. Having more than that on a gradual basis, however, can be more harmful than beneficial and can lead to various side effects.
2. What are the side effects of copper in drinking water and why is it harmful to humans?
Knowing what to look for and how to identify the warning signs of excess copper intake is vital to keeping your family safe and healthy. Whether it’s through home faucets, copper piping, or other sources such as cookware, here are some of the side effects you can get if you are exposed to too much copper:
- Stomach cramps
- Liver damage which in turn can lead to:
- Abdominal pain
- In severe cases of copper toxicity, it can even lead to liver failure
- Neurological symptoms:
- Changes in mood or behaviour
- Anaemia – this is mostly because too much copper in the diet can interfere with the absorption of iron.
- Kidney damage
The list above is not exhaustive, and the side effects of too much copper in water are also most likely to manifest if there is a chronic excessive intake rather than occasional overconsumption.
3. How can you tell if your water has high levels of copper and what can you do about it if it does?
Remember that high levels of copper in your water can be an indication of a larger problem with the safety of your drinking water. Copper is a naturally occurring element found in food, soil, and water. Because copper piping is naturally very stable, when it reaches high levels, it can mean there is corrosion occurring in your plumbing system.
Alternatively, it could also mean there is copper seeping into the groundwater from an industrial or landfill site. Fortunately, it is rather straightforward to test your drinking water for high levels of copper. The stability time for copper in water is 30 days and taking samples will allow you to view the exact amounts of copper present in your water so that you can then decide how best to address them. The cheapest way to test your water for copper is through our essential water testing kit.
3. What are some alternative sources of drinking water that don’t have harmful levels of copper in them?
Some alternative sources of drinking water that may not have harmful levels of copper include:
- Reverse osmosis filtered water
- Distilled water
- Rainwater, if collected and stored properly. Storage in particular is very important here, as using an inappropriate container can cause harmful levels of microplastics or other contaminants to enter the water. It is also important to have the water test for coliform bacteria, and even Legionella, if the water is stored for long periods of time, or if using an open storage solution.
- Spring water
- Well water, if tested and found to be safe, particularly from a coliform bacteria point of view. Even with well water, you may still need to conduct regular well water testing to check for contaminants such as other metals and other inorganics. Unfortunately the well water these days simply isn’t the same as 100 years ago!
- Bottled water, if sourced from a reputable company and within the expiration date. The reason for this is that bottling companies are required to conduct their own water testing and only supply the water if the testing limits fall within regulatory standards. As always, glass bottles are better than plastics and remember to keep the bottles and the water out of the sun!
4. Are there any long-term health risks associated with drinking water with high levels of copper in it over a period of time?
Drinking water with high levels of copper over an extended period of time can have negative effects on your health. As mentioned above, Copper is essential for the healthy functioning of the human body, but when consumed in large amounts, it can be toxic.
Long-term exposure to high levels of copper in drinking water can cause the more immediate side effects previously mentioned. However, more importantly, it can lead to long term health impairment.
Previous studies have identified that giving copper to the maximum levels permitted in the public water supply, can in fact promote tumour growth, thus increasing your risk of developing cancer. Subsequently reducing the copper levels has been shown to reduce tumour growth in the same study.
Patients with a rare disease called Wilson’s disease are also at higher risk of developing liver cirrhosis and liver failure if exposed to high levels of copper in their water. Patients with Wilson’s disease will already have high copper levels in their bloodstream, and this can be further accentuated by the copper water content.
Copper is also used in the intra-uterine device, known as the copper coil. Its role here is to prevent embryogenesis and thus prevent implantation. It is essentially used as a contraceptive device. Although I could only find one study on the negative effect of high copper on the reproductive system, this is likely to be difficult to accurately measure and identify causation. However, the fact that copper is used as a contraceptive, most definitely means that high copper levels won’t do your fertility any good!
5. How can you reduce the amount of copper that enters your body from drinking water, if necessary?
One way of reducing exposure to copper is by using a filter or standalone filtration system certified by an independent, third-party organization. There are various such systems available, but the best would be a reverse osmosis filter. You can read more about this and how it works on its wiki page.
There are also microfiltration or nanofiltration systems, but these tend to be of a more industrial scale.
Water filter jugs, such as the Brita Maxtra also claim to reduce copper levels but the filtration here will not be 100%.
Another viable solution for combatting excess copper concentrations is the use of bottled water with labels clearly specifying acceptable levels of contamination. However, as we saw above, copper levels at the maximum levels permitted in drinking water can actually be harmful, so try to stay as far away from the top ranges as possible.
Of course, the only way to truly get a picture of what’s inside your drinking water is to get it tested. Once you know the contaminants you are dealing with, you can then begin taking steps to protect yourself and your family. Ultimately, having a home water filtration system is the best way to stay safe and healthy from not only copper but also hundreds of other potential contaminants.