Did You Know about Copper and Lead?

Copper and lead are common metals found throughout the environment, in our air, soil, food, household dust, lead based paints and water. Lead and copper seldom occur in concentrations that are a health concern in drinking water supplies. They occur naturally in the source water of only about 1% of water systems. Lead and copper do however enter the drinking water through the result of corrosion of lead containing materials or copper alloy's within the water distribution systems and or household plumbing.

The following was extracted from the Environmental Protection Agency's web-site at: www.epa.gov/superfund/students/clas_act/haz-ed/ff_09.htm


What is it?

Copper is a reddish metal that occurs naturally in rock, soil, water, plants, sediment, and air. It is an essential element for all living organisms. Copper is most commonly found in pennies, electrical wiring, and some water pipes. It is also found in many alloys, such as brass and bronze.

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

How can exposure occur?

Most copper is released to land by mining operations, agriculture, solid waste, and sludge from sewage treatment plants. Copper is released to water from soil and industrial and sewage treatment discharge. Much of this copper is attached to dust and other air particles.

Most copper compounds found in air, water, sediment, soil, and rock are so strongly attached to dust and dirt or embedded in minerals that they don't usually affect health; this is common of copper found at hazardous waste sites. Some copper in the environment, however, is less tightly bound to particles and may be absorbed by plants and animals. Dissolved copper compounds commonly used in agriculture, for example, are more likely to threaten human health.

Copper can enter the body by ingesting water or food, soil, or other substances that contain copper, or by inhaling copper dust or fumes. Drinking water that contains higher levels of dissolved copper is a common pathway. Water can absorb copper from pipes and brass faucets as it sits overnight. The average concentration of copper in tap water ranges from 20 to 75 parts per billion (ppb). The term "parts per billion" is a way of expressing the concentration of a contaminant in a liquid or air. One part per billion is a very small amount-equal to 1 inch in a distance of about 16,000 miles (or one penny in $10 million).

How can it affect human health?

The body is very good at blocking high levels of copper from entering the bloodstream. Copper is necessary for good health, but large daily intakes of copper can be harmful. Long-term exposure to copper dust can irritate the nose, mouth, and eyes, and cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea may occur if you drink water that contains high levels of copper. although large amounts can cause liver and kidney damage, copper is not known to cause cancer.


What is it?

Lead is a bluish-gray metal that occurs naturally in the environment. Lead is found in plants and animals that are used for food, and in air, drinking water, surface waters, and soil.

Lead is mined from ore deposits or is salvaged from recycled scrap metal. It is used in a wide range of products, including batteries, paint, ammunition and various metal products.

How can exposure occur?

Lead exposure results from inhaling air, drinking water, or ingesting foods or soil that contain lead. Children may be exposed to lead by swallowing chips of paint that contain lead - a surprisingly common occurrence.

Until recently, the largest single source of lead in the air was vehicle exhaust. Currently, key sources include emissions from iron and steel production, smelting operations, and lead-acid battery manufacturers. Cigarette smoke is also a source of lead. Most of the lead in water is from lead plumbing and solder in houses and other buildings, lead-contaminated dust and soil carried into water by rain and wind, and wastewater from industries that use lead.

Lead in soil often comes from lead-contaminated wastes in landfills and from fertilizers. Because plants can absorb lead from contaminated soil, food may contain lead as a result.

Lead exposure stems primarily from contact with contaminated dust or water. Lead has been found at over 800 Superfund sites. Lead can enter the body if you breathe air contaminated with lead particles. Nearly all lead entering the lungs moves to the blood and then to other parts of the body. In adults, very little of the lead they ingest enters the blood. In children who swallow food or soil containing lead, however, much more of the lead enters their blood and moves to other parts of their bodies. Relatively small amounts of lead enter the body through the skin. Most lead ingested or inhaled is stored in bone. Since more lead is stored with each new exposure, the level in bones and teeth increases with age. Lead that is not stored in the body is removed in bodily wastes.

How can it affect human health?

Lead exposure is especially dangerous for fetuses: a woman's exposure during pregnancy can cause premature birth, low birth weight, even miscarriage. Young children are also at greater risk of health damage because their bodies absorb more lead and are more sensitive to its negative effects. Lead exposure in infants and young children can lower IQ scores, stunt physical growth, and cause hearing problems.

Exposure to high levels of lead can cause severe brain and kidney damage, and affect older men's blood pressure and reproductive systems.