Drinking Water And Copper Pipes: Advice For Homeowners

Plumbers and house builders in the United States have used copper pipes for many years. Copper is a particularly good material to use for water pipes because it withstands corrosion from salt or fresh water. That aside, small traces of copper from home plumbing can build up in your drinking water over time, and scientists now believe that the copper exposure can cause health problems. Learn more about the health effects of copper in your drinking water, and find out what measures homeowners can take to avoid the problem.

Effects of copper on human health

Copper is an essential part of a healthy diet, and many food sources contain healthy amounts of the mineral. Shellfish, nuts, grains and leafy vegetables are all natural sources of copper. In fact, the National Academy of Science recommends two to three milligrams of copper per day.

That aside, excess consumption of copper can lead to health problems, both on a short and long-term basis. For example, a single, high dose of 15mg of copper can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal cramps. Severe copper poisoning can lead to anemia and problems with the liver and kidneys.

Scientists have also linked exposure to copper to Alzheimer's disease. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that copper could prevent the brain getting rid of a protein (beta amyloid) that causes dementia. Patients with Alzheimer's disease often see plaques of this protein forming in the brain.

Safe levels of copper

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set the level at which contaminants in drinking water will not cause adverse health effects. The EPA sets maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG) for any substance that you may find in drinking water.

The MCLG for copper is 1.3 mg per liter. Some local states can also set more stringent regulations for copper in drinking water.

Detecting copper in your drinking water

Copper can get into your drinking water at home when your pipes corrode. The material can also leach into the water through fixtures and faucets. The amount of copper depends on the type of minerals in the water, the time the water spends in the pipes, the age and condition of the pipes, and the water's temperature and acidity.

You cannot see, taste or smell copper in the water, so you may need to carry out a test to find harmful levels in your home. You may also see rust-colored stains on your laundry, and you may notice frequent leaks from faucets or exposed pipes around the home. Blue-green stains on plumbing fixtures can also indicate that you have a problem with copper contamination.

Preventing copper contamination

If you have copper pipes at home, you can take steps to avoid contamination in your drinking water.

Water that sits idle in the pipes for a long time is at higher risk of contamination. As such, it's important to run the cold water tap first thing in the morning for 30 to 60 seconds, to flush away any contaminated water.

Copper dissolves more quickly in hot water, so you should never use warm tap water for cooking or drinking. Put cold water in a pan and then boil, before using it for cooking.

You can also filter your water. If your water comes from a well, fit a calcite filter in the line between the well and any copper pipe, to make the water less corrosive. Consider a point-of-use filter in the kitchen, to remove copper before you use water from the faucet for drinking. Check that the filter is able to remove copper on the Water Quality Association's website before installation, or ask your plumber, like one at http://www.powerplumbingco.com, for more advice.

Removing copper pipes

It's often very expensive to remove copper pipes, particularly in older properties. In newer homes, building companies now often use a flexible synthetic material called PEX, which is as reliable as copper, but is less expensive. PEX installation is also easier. With copper pipes, a plumber will often need to solder the fittings to connect two pieces, but he or she can install PEX with basic plumbing tools, so the work will also take less time.

Copper in drinking water can cause short and long-term health problems, so homeowners must take action to prevent contamination. If you're worried about the copper in your drinking water, talk to your plumber for further advice.