Copper (Cu)

Cu, Koppar och kopparföreningar, som Cu


Copper and compounds

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Molecular formula


 Copper is a reddish metal with very high conductivity. This description refers to copper and copper compounds.


Copper has for a very long time been used for a large variety of applications. Today, copper is both used as thermal conductor and in various electrical appliances because of its very high conductivity. Copper is also used in pipes for drinking water, as a metal alloying agent and in antifouling paints for boats to protect against growth of algae, barnacles and mussels.1 Copper also occurs in pesticides within agriculture and in wood preservatives.

Sources and transportation pathways

Copper occurs naturally in the environment bound to various minerals, dissolved in water or in the soil and sediment. Increased levels may occur close to emission sources. In Sweden, the transport sector is the single largest source of copper emissions to air.2 3 A large part of these emissions originate from wear of the brake lining of cars. Wastewater treatment and the pulp and paper industry contribute to copper emissions to water.

Effects on environment and health

Copper is an essential trace metal needed in small amounts by humans and animals However, high levels may cause damagaes.4 The effects vary between different groups of organisms and the risk of damage depends for example on the copper compound and bioaccessibility. Among plants and animals, aquatic plants and bacteria are most likely to suffer adverse effects of copper. Copper is also toxic to microorganisms in the soil and may disrupt important processes such as decomposition. Higher organisms are in general less susceptible.5

Humans are exposed primarily through ingestion of food and drinking water. Ingesting large amounts of copper may cause nausea and vomiting as well as other stomach and bowl-related symptoms such as stomach pain and diarrhoea. In certain cases, it may also lead to liver damage.6 7 The risk of adverse health effects as a result of ingesting drinking water is considered low.8

International agreements and regulations

Copper is regulated by the UN Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) as well as the EU Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC) and the EU Sewage Sludge Directive (86/278/EEC). Limit values for copper in drinking water is also regulated in the provision of the Swedish National Food Agency.9 The UN Protocol on PRTRs and the EU E-PRTR regulation regulate how data on copper emissions is made available.


6Araya, M., Olivares, M., Pizarro, F., Llanos, A., Figueroa, G., Uauy, R. 2004. Community-Based Randomized Double-Blind Study of Gastrointestinal Effects and Copper Exposure in Drinking Water. Environ Health Perspect 10:1068-1073.
8 Pettersson, R., Rasmussen, F., Oskarsson, A. 2003. Copper in drinking water: not a strong risk factor for diarrhea among young children. A population-based study from Sweden. Acta paediatr. 92:473-80.