Copper has plenty of positive connotations, like the sparkle of a brand-new penny. This metallic element is also used in generators, wiring, jewelry and more, making it a common part of everyday life.
However, much like any other potential contaminant, copper isn’t quite as pleasing when it’s in your water supply.* Because copper is found in the Earth’s crust as well as your home’s plumbing, this shiny metal has a few different ways of getting into your drinking glass.
Here’s everything you need to know about copper water contamination: how it happens, what it causes and what you can do to address it.
Copper is used in many forms, so when it’s not sitting in your jar of spare change, it can cause its fair share of problems. Here’s a closer look:
How Does Copper Get Into Water?
Because copper has historically been a common component of plumbing systems, your water may travel through copper-containing pipes every day. If that water is acidic, which means its pH level is low, it can corrode these pipes and cause potential copper contamination in your water.
While pipe corrosion is the most common cause, copper has other ways of entering your water supply. For example, if a nearby mining or farming operation is putting copper into the environment, contamination could occur in water sources like rivers, lakes and private wells.
What is Copper Poisoning?
Your body actually needs a certain amount of copper: Adults over 19 should get about one milligram daily. If you get a little more than one milligram, don’t worry — your liver can eliminate excess copper up to a certain amount. However, if you exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of 10 milligrams per day, which is the maximum amount of copper you can ingest without serious side effects, the results can include gastrointestinal disturbances, liver damage and kidney disease.
Does All Tap Water Have Copper in It?
Not all tap water is necessarily contaminated with copper. The presence and amount of copper in your water depend on elements like your home’s plumbing and the pH level of your water.
Furthermore, there are certain guidelines in place to ensure that high levels of copper are addressed. For example, the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality outlines which corrective measures may need to be taken and by whom in case of water contamination.
It’s important to note that private wells are not protected under these guidelines. That’s why it’s smart to test your well water regularly.
Copper can be difficult to recognize. Here’s how to identify its presence:
What Are the Signs of Copper in Water?
At first, you may not even realize copper has found its way into your water supply. That’s because, at low levels, copper has no taste, color or smell. As copper levels get higher, you may start to notice a metallic taste and possibly even copper stains.
What Are Copper Stains?
Although copper is reddish-brown, it becomes blue-green when exposed to air or water. That’s why pennies can show colorful stains — and why your toilets, bathtubs, sinks and fixtures might have the same discoloration if your water has high levels of copper.
Is Copper Water Safe?
Even if your water is contaminated with this metal, you’re safe to shower or bathe. That’s because the copper won’t be absorbed by your skin, and it won’t turn into vapor you can inhale.
However, depending on the amount of copper present, your water may not be safe to drink or cook with. If you notice blue-green stains or a taste like you’ve just licked a penny, it’s time for a water test.
You don’t have to guess whether copper is in your water supply. In fact, although copper contamination is often a plumbing problem, you don’t necessarily have to worry about examining your pipes. Instead, you can have a water test performed to learn everything you need to know about water quality and safety — including whether copper is present.
What Are Copper Water Tests?
Copper water tests are the best way to learn whether you have a copper problem. Regardless of whether you use city or private well water, a water test can tell you what’s going on when you turn on the tap. Like lead and certain other contaminants, testing for copper usually requires a water sample to be sent for laboratory analysis, like at Culligan’s IL EPA-certified lab.
How to Test for Copper in Your Water
While there are do-it-yourself tests for copper contamination in water, the process can be frustrating and the results may be unclear even after all that work. To get the clearest and most accurate answers, it’s ideal to have a professional water test performed.
Are There Acceptable Levels of Copper in Drinking Water?
Although not all amounts of copper are necessarily dangerous, copper has more bioavailability in water than in food. This means that waterborne copper can enter the body more easily and in higher amounts — which is why most public health agencies have set maximum levels for copper contamination. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directs public systems to take action if water samples show copper levels above 1.3 parts per million.
Say you’ve had a water test, and it turns out there’s copper in your water supply. What happens now?
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Copper Water Filters
The best way to reduce the presence of copper and other potential contaminants from your water depends on what is causing the presence of copper in your water. If the cause is corrosion of copper pipes due to high pH water, install a whole-house filtration system with filter media specifically designed to neutralize acidic water. You can also consider an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system that is certified to reduce copper in water.
How to Reduce Copper Exposure
While you’re deciding on the best water filtration system for your home, there are a few temporary steps you can take to reduce copper exposure:
Copper may be good luck when you find it in the form of a heads-up penny, but when it’s in your water supply, it’s not quite as lucky. The good news is that a water test can help identify the presence of this metal and any of its friends, along with anything else you should know about the water you drink, cook and clean with.
*Contaminants may not be present in your water.