Lead-contaminated tap water — and its dangers — gained public attention after high-profile cases in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., but copper is another area for concern in our nation’s tap water. Two California residents recently discovered high copper levels in their drinking water and suspected it was causing their pets to become sick. Out of concern for their families' health, they individually sought out help from Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards, a University Distinguished Professor well known for his work with residential water testing in Flint.

When Edwards was contacted by the California residents, he was advising graduate student Rebecca Kriss, who earned her Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering this month, while working on a project trying to detect lead using home test kits. Edwards suggested that she focus on copper issues in water because they are more often overlooked. Kriss rose to the challenge and worked with both residents to assess the causes of copper in their water, guide treatment choices, and then track how well they worked.

According to the National Institutes of Health, copper is vital for human health. The mineral helps the body carry out important functions such as making energy, maintaining the nervous and immune systems, and supporting brain development. However, in excess, copper can cause myriad health concerns, including gastrointestinal issues and organ damage.

Both residents who contacted Edwards had recently replumbed their homes with new copper pipes. One resident noticed blue staining in his icemaker, and his hair began to turn green. With new copper pipes, elevated copper in the water is expected and may persist for days, months, years, or decades until a low-solubility mineral coating or a “protective scale” forms inside the pipes. Until that scale forms, copper can leach into drinking water through corrosion in plumbing pipes, fittings, and fixtures. Residents with high copper may experience aesthetic concerns like blue water and fixture staining as well as health effects.

The second resident who reached out to Virginia Tech had similar questions regarding water quality but for different reasons. His dog had quickly lost weight and developed severe anemia without explanation. After visiting four veterinarians who could not identify a cause for the sudden change in his dog’s health, he switched his dog to bottled water as a last effort and noticed a full recovery. It wasn’t until the local utility company contacted him about high copper in his drinking water that he connected the dots and suspected that his dog was becoming ill because of high copper levels in the water.

Two residents. Similar issues in their drinking water. One research lab on a mission to help them and others around the country. 

Rebecca Kriss
Rebecca Kriss. Photo by Amber Montgomery for Virginia Tech.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates copper in drinking water under the lead and copper rule, which set a 90th percentile action level of 1.3mg/L, or 1,300 parts per billion, of copper in municipal systems. Copper concentrations for more than 90 percent of homes in the sampling pool must be below this level, otherwise utilities must notify the public and implement corrosion control treatment. One of the California residents had over 1,500 parts per billion of copper in his drinking water, resulting in the letter he received from the local water authority.  

However, many gaps exist in how lead and copper are regulated. The lead and copper rule only tests a small sample of the population, so thousands of other residents may have elevated copper levels in their drinking water and be unaware. Kriss said the sampling focuses on homes at high-risk for lead problems, like older homes with lead pipes, but not on homes at high-risk of copper issues, like new homes with new copper pipes.  

Kriss wants to empower residents to address their own water quality concerns through consumer-centric testing and treatment guidance appropriate for residential use.

“I came to Virginia Tech because I wanted my Ph.D. to be very applied and use science to help people directly,” Kriss said. “My first few projects here were looking at whether at-home test kits could detect lead in drinking water, modifying the test method to get them to work better, and seeing how well residents could use them in their own homes.”

She said there are relatively accurate at-home tests for lead and chlorine in drinking water, and for uses in pools and aquariums. “So I thought that a similar test could be promising for measurement of copper as well,” she said.

One of the residents tested the water in their home with at-home kits and mailed samples to Virginia Tech so researchers could assess the test kits’ accuracy. Kriss found that three types of at-home copper tests and one for water pH were relatively accurate and could help detect concerns and guide intervention options.

However, that was just step one.

“The test kits are really a small fraction of this work,” she said. “The bigger issue is how to fix the problem.”

Kriss developed a guidance framework to help residents detect and address cuprosolvency issues. One proposed action is to adjust the water quality through whole-house treatments that help form a protective scale. Another option is to avoid ingesting water with elevated copper through flushing water, using an NSF 53 or 58 certified filter, or consuming bottled water, while waiting for a protective scale to form. The last resort would be replacing copper pipes with plastic or stainless-steel pipes.

“Residents with cuprosolvency problems may be left largely on their own to address these issues,” said Kriss. “This puts a huge undue burden on consumers, requiring them to train themselves and build up their own expertise.” The two residents in California spent thousands of dollars and over a year of effort trying to address their water problems.

Both residents are now using a point of use reverse osmosis treatment system to protect themselves and their families from exposure to copper via drinking water. One of the residents is using a whole-house system to adjust the pH of his water. While effective in controlling copper levels, this approach requires that the system be continuously used for the foreseeable future, until a protective scale eventually forms. Kriss hopes that her research findings will help other residents and local water authorities battling high copper levels address the issues in a more consumer-centric way.  

Well users are not regulated under the lead and copper rule and are responsible for their own water quality. If you are in Virginia, and interested in getting your well water tested, the Virginia Household Water Quality Program offers affordable water testing and education to improve the water quality and health of Virginians who rely on private wells and springs. You can find out how to obtain your testing kit at www.wellwater.bse.vt.edu/clinics.php.

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