Health effects of copper

Introduction

Copper is a reddish metal that occurs naturally in rock, soil, water, sediment, and, at low levels, air. Its average concentration in the earth's crust is about 50 parts copper per million parts soil (ppm) or, stated another way, 50 grams of copper per 1,000,000 grams of soil (1.8 ounces or 0.11 pounds of copper per 2,200 pounds of soil). Copper also occurs naturally in all plants and animals. It is an essential element for all known living organisms including humans and other animals at low levels of intake. At much higher levels, toxic effects can occur. The term copper in this profile not only refers to copper metal, but also to compounds of copper that may be in the environment.

Metallic copper can be easily molded or shaped. The reddish color of this element is most commonly seen in the U.S. penny, electrical wiring, and some water pipes. It is also found in many mixtures of metals, called alloys, such as brass and bronze. Many compounds (substances formed by joining two or more chemicals) of copper exist. These include naturally occurring minerals as well as manufactured chemicals. The most commonly used compound of copper is copper sulfate. Many copper compounds can be recognized by their blue-green color.

Copper is extensively mined and processed in the United States and is primarily used as the metal or alloy in the manufacture of wire, sheet metal, pipe, and other metal products. Copper compounds are most commonly used in agriculture to treat plant diseases, like mildew, or for water treatment and as preservatives for wood, leather, and fabrics.

Pathways for copper in the environment

Copper can enter the environment through releases from the mining of copper and other metals, and from factories that make or use copper metal or copper compounds. Copper can also enter the environment through waste dumps, domestic waste water, combustion of fossil fuels and wastes, wood production, phosphate fertilizer production, and natural sources (for example, windblown dust, from native soils, volcanoes, decaying vegetation, forest fires, and sea spray). Therefore, copper is widespread in the environment. About 1,400,000,000 pounds (640,000,000,000 grams) of copper were released into the environment by industries in 2000. Copper is often found near mines, smelters, industrial settings, landfills, and waste disposal sites.

When copper is released into soil, it can become strongly attached to the organic material and other components (e.g., clay, sand, etc.) in the top layers of soil and may not move very far when it is released. When copper and copper compounds are released into water, the copper that dissolves can be carried in surface waters either in the form of copper compounds or as free copper or, more likely, copper bound to particles suspended in the water. Even though copper binds strongly to suspended particles and sediments, there is evidence to suggest that some water-soluble copper compounds do enter groundwater. Copper that enters water eventually collects in the sediments of rivers, lakes, and estuaries. Copper is carried on particles emitted from smelters and ore processing plants, and is then carried back to earth through gravity or in rain or snow. Copper is also carried into the air on windblown metallurgical dust. Indoor release of copper comes mainly from combustion processes (for example, kerosene heaters).

Elemental copper does not break down in the environment. Copper can be found in plants and animals, and at high concentrations in filter feeders such as mussels and oysters. Copper is also found in a range of concentrations in many foods and beverages that we eat and drink, including drinking water.

Exposure to copper

Copper is common in the environment. You may be exposed to copper by breathing air, drinking water, eating food, and by skin contact with soil, water and other copper-containing substances. Most copper compounds found in air, water, sediment, soil and rock are strongly attached to dust and dirt or imbedded in minerals. You can take copper into your body upon ingestion of water or soil that contains copper or by inhalation of copper-containing dust. Some copper in the environment is less tightly bound to soil or particles in water and may be soluble enough in water to be taken up by plants and animals. In the general population, soluble copper compounds (those that dissolve in water), which are most commonly used in agriculture, are more likely to threaten your health. When soluble copper compounds are released into lakes and rivers, they generally become attached to particles in the water within approximately 1 day. This could lessen your exposure to copper in water, depending on how strongly the copper is bound to the particles and how much of the particles settle into lake and river sediments. However, fine particles have an enormous surface area and can remain suspended for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, at high fine particle concentrations, both exposure and uptake can be considerable even under conditions of tight copper binding to the suspended particulates.

The concentration of copper in air ranges from a few nanograms (1 nanogram equals 1/1,000,000,000 of a gram or 4/100,000,000,000 of an ounce) in a cubic meter of air (ng/m³) to about 200 ng/m³. A cubic meter (m³) is approximately 25% larger than a cubic yard. Near smelters, which process copper ore into metal, concentrations may reach 5,000 ng/m³. You may breathe high levels of copper-containing dust if you live or work near copper mines or processing facilities.

You may be exposed to levels of soluble copper in your drinking water that are above the acceptable drinking water standard of 1,300 parts copper per billion parts of water (ppb), especially if your water is corrosive and you have copper plumbing and brass water fixtures. The average concentration of copper in tap water ranges from 20 to 75 ppb. However, many households have copper concentrations of over 1,000 ppb. That is more than 1 milligram per liter of water. This is because copper is dissolved from copper pipes and brass faucets when the water sits in the pipes overnight. After the water is allowed to run for 15-30 seconds, the concentration of copper in the water decreases below the acceptable drinking water standard.

The concentration of copper in lakes and rivers ranges from 0.5 to 1,000 ppb with an average concentration of 10 ppb. The average copper concentration in groundwater (5 ppb) is similar to that in lakes and rivers; however, monitoring data indicate that some groundwater contains levels of copper (up to 2,783 ppb) that are well above the standard of 1,300 ppb for drinking water. This copper is generally bound to particles in the water. Lakes and reservoirs recently treated with copper compounds to control algae or receive cooling water from a power plant can have high concentrations of dissolved copper. Once in natural water, much of this copper soon attaches to particles or convert to other forms that can settle into sediments. This can limit exposure to copper unless the sediments are stirred; for example, by the resuspension and swallowing of sediments by swimmers in recreational waters.

Garden products containing copper that are used to control certain plant diseases are also a potential source of exposure through contact with skin or if they are accidentally swallowed. For example, you can find copper compounds in some fungicides.

Soil generally contains between 2 and 250 ppm copper, although concentrations close to 17,000 ppm have been found near copper and brass production facilities. High concentrations of copper may be found in soil because dust from these industries settles out of the air, or wastes from mining and other copper industries are disposed of on the soil. Another common source of copper in soil results from spreading sludge from sewage treatment plants. This copper generally stays strongly attached to the surface layer of soil. You may be exposed to this copper by skin contact. Children may also be exposed to this copper by hand to mouth contact and eating the contaminated dirt and dust.

Food naturally contains copper. You eat and drink about 1 milligram (1/1,000 of a gram or 4/100,000 ounces) of copper every day.

While some hazardous waste sites on the NPL contain high levels of copper, we do not always know how high it is above natural levels. We also do not know what form it is in at most of these sites. However, evidence suggests that most copper at these sites is strongly attached to soil.

You may be exposed to copper in the workplace. If you work in the industry of mining copper or processing the ore, you are exposed to copper by breathing copper-containing dust or by skin contact. If you grind or weld copper metal, you may breathe high levels of copper dust and fumes. Occupational exposure to forms of copper that are soluble or not strongly attached to dust or dirt would most commonly occur in agriculture, water treatment, and industries such as electroplating, where soluble copper compounds are used. Exposure to copper in air in the workplace is regulated and is set to be below concentrations that can be harmful to you.

Pathways for copper in the body

Copper can enter your body when you drink water or eat food, soil, or other substances that contain copper. Copper can also enter your body if you breathe air or dust containing copper. Copper may enter the lungs of workers exposed to copper dust or fumes.

Copper rapidly enters the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body after you eat or drink it. Certain substances in foods eaten with copper can affect the amount of copper that enters the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. Your body is very good at blocking high levels of copper from entering the bloodstream. We do not know how much copper enters the body through the lungs or skin. Copper then leaves your body in feces and urine, mostly in feces. It takes several days for copper to leave your body. Generally, the amount of copper in your body remains constant (the amount that enters your body equals the amount that leaves).

Health effects of copper

Scientists use many tests to protect the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.

You should know that one way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify such health effects as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.

Additionally, there are vigorous national and international efforts to develop alternatives to animal testing. The efforts focus on both in vitro and in silico approaches and methods. For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) in 1998. The role of NICEATM is to serve the needs of high quality, credible science by facilitating development and validation—and regulatory and public acceptance—of innovative, revised test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while strengthening protection of human health, animal health and welfare, and the environment. In Europe, similar efforts at developing alternatives to animal based testing are taking place under the aegis of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM).

Copper is essential for good health. However, exposure to higher doses can be harmful. Long-term exposure to copper dust can irritate your nose, mouth, and eyes, and cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. If you drink water that contains higher than normal levels of copper, you may experience nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, or diarrhea. Intentionally high intakes of copper can cause liver and kidney damage and even death. We do not know if copper can cause cancer in humans. EPA does not classify copper as a human carcinogen because there are no adequate human or animal cancer studies.

Health effects in children

Scientists use many tests to protect the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.

One way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify health effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.

Copper is essential for good health. However, exposure to higher doses can be harmful. Long-term exposure to copper dust can irritate your nose, mouth, and eyes, and cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. If you drink water that contains higher than normal levels of copper, you may experience nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, or diarrhea. Intentionally high intakes of copper can cause liver and kidney damage and even death. We do not know if copper can cause cancer in humans. EPA does not classify copper as a human carcinogen because there are no adequate human or animal cancer studies.

Reducing risk of exposure to copper

If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to substantial amounts of copper, ask whether your children might also have been exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.

The greatest potential source of copper exposure is through drinking water, especially in water that is first drawn in the morning after sitting in copper piping and brass faucets overnight. To reduce copper in drinking water, run the water for at least 15-30 seconds before using it. Additionally, if there is concern about the concentration of copper in drinking water exceeding the minimum value of 1,300 ppb, families should have their water tested.

Medical tests for exposure to copper

Copper is normally found in all tissues of the body, blood, urine, feces, hair, and nails. High levels of copper in the blood, urine, hair, and nails can show that you have been exposed to higher than normal levels of copper. 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. Although these tests can show that you have been exposed to higher than normal copper levels, they can not be used to predict the extent of exposure or potential health effects.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

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Citation

(2008). Health effects of copper. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153361

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