Copper and Society


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Copper – essential for health and nutrition

Copper is essential for all living things. As a naturally-occurring element, copper is present everywhere in the world around us. Life has evolved in this natural presence, and humans have developed built-in mechanisms to manage intake levels. Copper is not formed in the body and must be obtained from food and drinking water each day as part of a balanced diet and, occasionally, through the use of dietary supplements. Dietary copper is important to doctors and nutritionists.  Our digestive systems assimilate the amount necessary for good health through a system of uptake called homeostasis.  Excess copper is excreted. 

Copper's role in growth and development

Virtually every cell in the body utilises copper and, together with iron and zinc, copper makes up the trio of minerals essential to our well-being. Copper is vital to the health of the body from foetal development right through to old age. Quite simply, without copper our brains, nervous systems and cardiovascular systems could not function normally.Copper as essential nutrient
Copper is essential for:

  • Brain development during foetal and post-natal growth, and maintenance of brain health throughout life, including effective anti-oxidative defence.
  • Efficient communication between nerve cells
  • Maintenance of healthy skin and connective tissue
  • Wound healing
  • Structural integrity and function of heart and blood vessels
  • Growth of new blood vessels
  • Proper structure and function of circulating blood cells
  • Formation of the cells of our immune system (white blood cells)
  • Maintenance of a healthy and effective immune response
  • Generation and storage of energy in the ‘power plants’ of our cells, the mitochondria.

How much copper do we need?

Copper is an essential trace mineral that cannot be formed by the human body so must be ingested from dietary sources every day. According to the World Health Organisation, 1–3 milligrams per day of copper are required to prevent any symptoms of deficit.

Various health and nutrition organisations around the world have set dietary reference values, highlighting the importance of copper as part of a balanced diet.

 Adequate Intakes for Copper
 Age Females Males 
 7 – 11 months
 0.4  0.4
 1 – <3 years   0.7   0.7
 3 – <10 years  1.0 1.0 
 10 – <18 years  1.1 1.3 
 ≥ 18 years  1.3 1.6 
 Pregnancy  1.5  
 Lactation  1.5  

Source: European Food Safety Authority.

What are copper rich foods?   

Some foods are especially rich in copper. These include most nuts (especially brazils and cashews), seeds (especially poppy and sunflower), chickpeas, liver and oysters. Natural foods such as cereals, meat and fish generally contain sufficient copper to provide up to 50% of the required copper intake in a balanced diet.

In addition, a further part of the daily intake in the United Kingdom may be obtained from drinking water transmitted through copper pipes. However in most areas, the copper content of water is not sufficient to provide the balance of the required normal daily intake of this element. In addition, it should be appreciated that some water filters are claimed to remove metals including the essential element copper from drinking water.

Copper deficiency

According to the World Health Organisation, there is a greater risk from copper deficiency than from copper toxicity, even in developed areas such as the US and Western Europe. Copper deficiency can lead to health problems such as anaemia, heart and circulation problems, bone abnormalities and complications in the functioning of the nervous and immune systems, the lungs, thyroid, pancreas and kidneys. The elderly, who do not get enough copper, and lactating and pregnant women who need more copper in their diet, are especially impacted. This view is echoed by the EU Voluntary Risk Assessment, which concludes that some EU citizens are at a risk of copper deficiency, for example, post-menopausal women.

Copper excess   

Copper homeostasis balances uptake and excretion of copper to meet the body's needs on a continuous basis. Acute copper poisoning is a rare event, largely restricted to the accidental drinking of solutions of copper nitrate or copper sulphate which should be kept out of easy access in the home. These and organic copper salts are powerful emetics and inadvertent large doses are normally rejected by vomiting. The capacity for healthy human livers to excrete copper is considerable and chronic copper poisoning is very rare with the few reports refering to patients with liver disease.

Copper in medicine

Copper has been used as a medicine for thousands of years including the treatment of chest wounds and the purifying of drinking water. More recently, research has indicated that copper helps prevent inflammation in arthritis and similar diseases. Research is going on into anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory medicines containing copper, and its use in radiology and for treating convulsions and epilepsy. Although there is no epidemiological evidence that copper can prevent arthritis, there have been claims that the wearing of copper bangles does alleviate the symptoms.

Antimicrobial copper as a weapon against harmful bacteria

Copper is not only vital as an essential element to help our bodies fight disease with a well-functioning immune system, it also has an important role in fighting infection as an antimicrobial material.  Approximately four million people in the EU acquire a healthcare-associated infection every year, from which approximately 40,000 die. Extensive testing in the laboratory and in the clinical environment has shown that antimicrobial copper continuously reduces bacteria and can kill the pathogenic microbes that cause these infections. Recently published clinical trial data shows that key touch surfaces, made from antimicrobial copper, can reduce a patient's risk of acquiring a hospital infection by 58%.

Is copper needed by plants and animals?

Absolutely. Plants and animals require copper for normal growth and metabolism. Without proper copper supply in soils, plants will have reduced yields, impaired quality of crop products, increased susceptibility to disease, and, in severe cases, to crop failure
Related ResourcesHere are related resources.  To browse and search all resources, visit the Resource Library.
    Pub 183 - The Impact of Copper on Human Health
    Review paper exploring the impact of copper on human health (with scientific references). International Copper Association. 2005. 16pp.
    Pub 178 - Copper Sustains Life
    General information sheet on the role of copper in health. 2004. 2pp.
    Pub 104 - Copper-Beryllium Health and Safety Notes
    beryllium, alloys, health, safety
    Guidance notes for users of copper beryllium products. 1994. 2pp
    P7 - Copper - The Vital Metal Poster
    health, recyclability, schools, science
    A2 poster highlighting copper's key role in technology, energy and health, and its recyclability.
    Copper, Iron and Zinc - An Essential Trio for Health
    Fact sheet on copper, iron and zinc in the Public Service Series of International Copper Association, November 2009, 2pp.

1mg of copper is needed each day to maintain good health

According to the World Health Organisation's nutritional guidelines, adults need 1.2 mg of copper in our daily diet. Fortunately, we can obtain it from many different foods. Dark chocolate, leafy greens, legumes, lentils, nuts, organ meats (liver, kidney) and shellfish all contain copper and provide essential health benefits.

Copper for Safe and Healthy Drinking Water

For more technical information on the copper alloys approved for use in contact with drinking water, click here.

Copper Deficiency, a Global Concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that global populations are at greater health risks from the lack of copper in their diets than from an excess of copper.
Copper is essential throughout our lives
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