Copper is a natural element that is highly abundant in the soil of many regions. As a result, it is also common to find in drinking water. As water works its way through rocks, soil, and even copper piping in your own home, copper can leach into the water.
Although copper is a micronutrient that is beneficial in small amounts, consuming too much can lead to acute health risks. Managing the fine line between the two means you need to know how to test for copper in water.
- The best method to test for copper in water is with a certified laboratory test to detect the exact concentration of copper in your water.
- Signs of copper in water include blue-green staining (verdigris) and metallic-tasting water.
- Copper is the most common heavy metal in tap water, which leaches into the water supply from pipes, faucets, and other corroded plumbing fixtures.
- The EPA actionable limit of copper in drinking water is 1.3 mg/L because high levels of copper in drinking water can have adverse effects on human health.
How Does Copper Get Into Water?
There are several ways that copper can get into a water supply, including:
- Copper Piping: Copper is a very common metal for well components, pipes, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures. If either of these is present in your home, it is possible for the copper to leach into the water passing through them. This is particularly common for old and corroded copper pipes.
- Naturally Leaching From Soil: Copper is naturally present in the environment. As water seeps through rocks and soils with high concentrations of copper, it may naturally leach into the water before reaching your well.
- Released by Pollution: Copper is heavily used in many industries, and many processes, including mining, manufacturing, and even farming, can release copper into the environment, where it can be picked up by rain and groundwater.
- Ground Water Treatment: Reservoirs and lakes that get cooling water from power plants or that have been treated with a copper compound to control algae have been shown to have concentrations of nearly 3 mg/L, which is 2 times the EPA standard.
What Are the Standards for Copper in Drinking Water?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides guidelines for the maximum amount of copper that can safely be present in water per the Lead And Copper Rule.
The EPA action level for copper concentrations is 1.3 mg/L. Since copper contamination primarily occurs from the corrosion of copper pipes in the home, a specialized treatment technique is required for utilities to control the corrosiveness of drinking water supplies.
Copper regulatory testing uses a different procedure because the concentration can vary so much across a water supply system. Based on a collection of samples, if more than 10% of the tap water samples exceed the 1.3 mg/L action level, the water utility must notify the public and take additional actions.
Separately, the Food And Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates bottled water, has a Primary Standard for copper in bottled water of 1.0 mg/L.
Signs Of High Levels Of Copper In Your Water
There are some signs you can look out for that may indicate you have high levels of copper in your water. The most common observations for copper in water:
- Blue-green stains on fixtures, such as your shower, tub, or sinks, among others
- Green-colored copper buildup and scale begin to develop on water fixtures
- Pin-hole leaks developing in copper plumbing
- Copper could also cause your water to have a bitter taste or metallic taste at high concentrations
If you do notice your water has a metallic taste, it could be unsafe to drink, and it would be best to drink bottled water until your water is tested.
What Are The Health Effects Of Copper In Water?
Copper is an essential micronutrient for human health, but can lead to copper poisoning if ingested in high amounts. Exposure to elevated copper levels for an extended period of time can create acute health effects, including:
- Liver and kidney damage
- Gastrointestinal inflammation
- Central nervous problems
- Wilson’s disease (Genetic condition from severe copper toxicity)
- Capillary damage
However, consuming lower concentrations of copper in drinking water gives health benefits. Trace minerals are involved in the destruction of free radicals which maintains the integrity of membranes, reduces the risk of cancer, and slows the aging process.
Given the benefits and risks of copper in drinking water, it is highly advisable to test for copper to manage the right balance
When Should I Test My Water for Copper?
If you notice blue-green staining in your water or it begins to have a metallic taste, you should test the tap water for copper. Particularly if you have high-risk individuals in the home like infants and children who are most susceptible to liver damage.
Also, if you have well water, you need to periodically test for copper in your water; since well water is not monitored the way public water supplies are, it does have a higher risk of a copper problem. When purchasing a new home, testing the water quality should be at the top of the home inspection checklist.
Lastly, if you are located near a copper ore mining operation, any manufacturing operations that smelts copper or produces copper products, or a landfill, more frequent copper water testing is recommended.
Elevated levels of copper can be associated with the high corrosiveness of your drinking water which may lead to other toxic metals like lead, chromium, and arsenic in your water supply.
Copper Water Testing At Home
The fortunate aspect of dissolved copper is you can taste and visually identify if there is a problem, unlike many other contaminants. However, these are only early warning signs of a potential health risk.
Your best course of action is to get your water tested to find the exact concentration level of copper and other toxic heavy metals. It is ideal to do a first draw test of the water for copper, lead, arsenic, and chromium. Then perform a more comprehensive check after flushing the system that includes heavy metals, common contaminants, and corrosion characteristics of your tap water.
There are two methods to test your water at home for copper, certified laboratory testing or DIY home test kits.
Certified Laboratory Testing
Certified laboratory testing is the most accurate method of water testing for copper. With a lab water test, you order a testing kit that comes with everything you need to properly collect a water sample to send to the lab.
I recommend the Freshnss Labs water test kit that scans for not only copper but also other heavy metals like lead. You simply fill the provided sample bottles with your tap water and submit them to the lab. A certified water expert will then analyze your water sample. The detailed report will include the exact concentration levels, any health or plumbing risks, and the best treatment methods based on your test data.
Laboratory Water Test Kit
Analyzed in a certified laboratory
Includes detailed report with EPA benchmarking and safety concerns
How To Collect A Water Test Sample
- Take the water sample from your primary drinking water faucet. You may need to clean the faucet’s screen first to ensure accurate results.
- Turn on your cold water and let it run for 30 – 60 seconds to flush the system before collecting your sample. Alternatively, you can take the water sample immediately to test for the first draw.
- Wear clean rubber gloves if you have them available to avoid cross-contamination.
- Turn on the cold water supply and slowly fill the sample bottle so it does not overflow.
- Make sure the sample bottle is filled to the shoulder of the bottle and the vials all the way to the top.
- Then package the sample bottle as instructed and send them to the lab to be analyzed by a certified professional.
Home DIY Test Strip Kit
You can use this water testing method to determine if there is copper in your water and to get an idea of the amount. But, the test will not give the kind of detailed analysis you would get from a certified laboratory test.
Once you buy one of these tests, you will collect a sample of water and dip the test strip into it. Then, after waiting for the amount of time stated in the directions, you will compare the color on the test strip to the color chart provided. This should give you a general idea of the level of copper in your water.
If the water test strip reveals the presence of contamination, you can proceed to purchase a lab water test or proceed with a treatment application.
Contact Your Water Utility
Every public water system is required to test and report its water quality once a year. You can search the database of Water Quality Reports with your zip code on the EPA website. Alternatively, you can call your water provider and ask them for the latest data on copper in your water supply. The contact information will be located on your monthly bill or on their website. However, because copper is primarily transmitted into tap water from your home’s specific plumbing, this should not be your sole source of information.
What If Your Water Test Positive For High Copper Levels
Reduce Your Exposure To Copper In Tap Water
If your water tests are positive for high levels of copper, there are a few precautions you can take to reduce exposure:
- Flush your water for 60 seconds if it has been sitting for more than 6 hours.
- Use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Hot water will dissolve corroded copper ions faster so they leach into your water.
- Use an appropriate filtration system to remove copper from your water supply. These can be either a point-of-use or a whole house system.
- If the copper levels are very high, or your water also contains lead, you may need to replace the affected plumbing.
Effective Filtration Methods For Copper In Water
There are a number of effective methods for removing copper from water, and we will discuss some of these below.
Reverse osmosis is a very effective method for removing copper from water. This method removes 97% to 98% of the copper from your water. It works by running the water through a semipermeable membrane, which allows the water to pass through, but not the contaminants.
Activated carbon is also effective at removing copper from your water. You can choose a single or multi-step method. These filters also have the advantage of removing some other absorbable contaminants. You can generally find these filters in countertop filtration systems or pitchers.
Ion exchange is another option for removing copper from water. One common example of this used in water softeners works by exchanging the copper ions with hydroxyl or hydrogen ions. This will remove some of the copper and soften your water improving water quality.
Another example of this method is a deionization system. These systems remove both negatively and positively charged ions from your water. Since copper is a positively charged ion, this method should work to remove it.
Water distillation boils your water which turns it into steam. This process will eliminate copper from your water as well as other contaminants since the contaminants can not be turned into steam. The steam will then condense, leaving you with safe water.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does boiling water remove copper from drinking water?
No, boiling water does not remove copper from the water. In fact, it may increase levels of copper in your water over regular tap water. The best way to ensure the safety of your water supply is to use a water test kit then after testing for copper, you can treat the water for high levels of copper if necessary.
Is copper good for drinking water?
Copper in water is not harmful as long as it is at acceptable levels. The Environmental Protection Agency has a maximum contaminant level goal of 1.3 mg/L, and public water supplies are regularly tested to ensure drinking water supplies do not have a copper problem. However, levels exceeding the action level can lead to copper poisoning symptoms.
Do copper pipes contaminate drinking water?
Copper pipes can contaminate drinking water if your water is acidic, it can corrode the copper piping and potentially contaminate your water supply with excess copper, thus making your drinking water unsafe.
Is it possible to get copper poisoning from copper in water?
Yes, it is possible to get copper poisoning from copper in your water supply. It is generally recommended that anyone over the age of nineteen get one milligram a day, and a little bit above this won’t hurt. However, if you ingest more than 10 milligrams a day you could experience gastrointestinal issues, liver damage, muscle weakness, and more.