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Copper (Cu) is a metal that is found naturally in rock formations. It is used to make many products, including parts for plumbing systems, if plumbing contains copper piping or parts, as the water passes through the system copper can get into drinking water. Although the body needs some copper to stay healthy, too much is harmful.

Health Effects of Copper Exposure

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, eating or drinking copper does not usually cause illness in most healthy people. Most people’s bodies process copper effectively. However, it is possible that eating or drinking too much copper can cause headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, liver damage, and kidney disease. High levels of copper may damage red blood cells and may also reduce the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen.

Sampling Protocol for Copper in Water

According to the EPA, testing is the best way to confirm whether there is the presence of copper in drinking water. Any outlet for potable water is a potential source for copper, e.g. drinking water fountains, kitchen sinks, bathroom faucets in housing facilities, bottle fillers, etc.

The NC State Water Quality Management Team (WQMT) plans to sample buildings on campus in phases. Initial sampling will target a matrix of 52 buildings with at least one building constructed in each decade beginning with the 1890’s. Sampling results are available here: Water Quality results table , provides trends with which the team is adjusting its sampling plan accordingly. The WQMT evaluates these results, and may adjust the sampling plan according to analysis of the data.

Results Interpretation and Notification  

The EPA specifies an action level of 1,300 parts per billion (ppb). The Water Quality Management Team has adopted the EPA’s action level for copper in drinking water. The WQMT will formally communicate to building occupants when test results are at or above the action level of 1,300 ppb..

Copper Frequently Asked Questions

What is Copper?

Copper is a metal that is found naturally in rock, soil, and sediment.

What are the health effects of copper?

While a small amount of copper in the diet is essential for health, elevated copper levels can be harmful. Elevated levels of copper can lead to health problems such as permanent kidney and liver damage in infants under the age of 1 year. In adults, high levels of copper can cause digestive disorders such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.

What is the maximum allowable level of copper in drinking water?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for copper at 1,300 ppb.

How does copper enter the water supply?

Unlike other water contaminants, elevated copper levels usually do not occur naturally in ground or surface water supplies. When high levels of copper are detected in water, a household plumbing system usually is the source.

What are the indications of copper present in drinking water?

Elevated concentrations of copper can give water a metallic taste. In addition, blue-green stains on plumbing fixtures and other surfaces the water contacts may be an indication of the corrosion or leaching of copper into the water.

Can I shower in copper-contaminated water?

Yes. Bathing and showering should be safe. Copper will not enter your body through skin or by breathing in vapors while showering or bathing.

What criteria is the university using for its test results?

Fixtures with sample results equal to or above 1.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L) or 1,300 parts per billion (ppb) will be managed according to the response plan.

How does the university test the water for copper?

Testing is done according to EPA approved methods for groundwater and drinking water testing found here

Where are the samples analyzed?

The samples are analyzed by EPA and NC accredited labs: members of the national lead laboratory accreditation program (NLLAP).

Where can I find information on buildings that have been tested?

Testing information can be found here Water Quality results table

Who do I contact for general questions?

For health and safety concerns, you may contact Environmental Health and Safety on (919)-515-7915. For facility-related questions like fixtures, plumbing line, please contact 919-515-2991


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