Copper - ChemicalSafetyFacts.org

Copper

Copper is a widely used, naturally occurring metal that can also act like a type of antimicrobial to control bacteria on surfaces. Copper compounds (copper combined with other elements, such as oxygen) can be used as a disinfectant, helping to kill bacteria and other microbes that can make people sick. Copper compounds can also be used to help preserve products such as wood, roofing and fabrics.

Uses & Benefits

Antimicrobial Coatings

Electroplate coating uses electrical currents to coat metal, including copper, onto items such as jewelry and silverware. The coating forms a barrier that helps to prevent harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, from forming on the surface. In hospitals and other healthcare settings, these coatings can help to reduce the amount of bacteria on surfaces like keyboards and doorknobs and help reduce the spread of infections.

Copper is commonly used in paints applied to the bottoms of ships and boats to help prevent the buildup of microorganisms that can damage hulls, increase drag and reduce fuel efficiency.

Building and Construction Uses

Copper is corrosion resistant, making it durable and long lasting. Copper tubing in piping systems help inhibit bacteria from forming in the plumbing that supplies water to homes, office buildings and other structures. Roofing granules can incorporate copper to help prevent algae growth. Copper compounds can also help to preserve wood, slowing damage and decay.

Agriculture Uses

On farms, copper sulfate is used as a disinfectant to prevent stored vegetables and crops from rotting and to help protect animals like sheep and cattle from disease. Copper compounds can help control algae in reservoirs and lakes.

Safety Information

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), copper occurs naturally in plants, dirt, rock, animals and water. Trace amounts of copper in the diet is necessary for good health; however, exposure to excess amounts of copper can cause health issues.

When copper is used as an antimicrobial product, meaning it kills or controls microbial growth, those products are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Antimicrobial manufacturers must submit extensive safety information to EPA showing the product poses no unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. State regulatory agencies also review and register these products.

Other federal government agencies also develop regulations to protect public health. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set strict limits on copper exposure in industrial settings to protect workers: 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter for copper fumes, and 1.0 milligram per cubic meter for copper dusts and mists during an 8-hour shift.

Answering Questions

Q: What are copper compounds?

A: Copper compounds are combinations of copper with other elements, such as oxygen and sulfur. These compounds can be used as antimicrobials (also called biocides) to reduce harmful bacteria, prevent the build-up of damaging organisms on boat hulls, or preserve the shelf lives of products like wood and fabrics.

Q: Is copper harmful to humans? Are we exposed to it?

A: The CDC states that copper is a natural metal found in soil, rock, plants, water and animals. All living things, including humans, need copper in their diet for good health, so trace amounts in the body are not harmful. However, excess amounts of copper can cause health problems.

Exposure to a higher amount of copper can cause irritation of the nose, eyes, mouth and cause headaches, among other symptoms. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s full public health statement on copper highlights exposure effects.

EPA regularly reviews the use of copper as an antimicrobial and assesses its risk to human health and the environment and strictly regulates antimicrobial uses of copper.