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Copper pollution

Q. Student Question: How can I prevent copper pollution in water? What are the major factors for copper pollution?

Yolanda B [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
- South Africa

Copper in Drinking Water


A. Hi, Yolanda:

Charles Darwin said that to attempt to do science without a thesis (hypothesis) would be like going down into a pit day after day, year after year, and sorting the pieces of gravel by size and shape.

The important thing is for YOU TO THINK ABOUT what you believe might be an important causes of copper pollution and the ways to prevent it. I'm sure that readers will be happy to steer you back on track if they think you are wrong, and to encourage you if they think you are on the right track. Your hypothesis is simply your statement of what you think, such as "Copper pollution is harmful because . . . ; one significant cause of copper pollution is . . . and it can be significantly reduced by . . ." Good luck in your studies!

Ted Mooney, Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Pine Beach, New Jersey


Q. We have just installed copper gutters. The run-off goes into an underground pipe that has an outlet down the hill away from the house. Currently there are cattails growing in the outlet area, but I wonder if the copper leachate will build up and poison the plants or fish in the stream below. Are there plants that thrive in copper-rich areas? Can the copper leachate be metabolized?

Pamela Harwood
- Cumberland, Maine

Aquatic Pollution: An Introductory Text

A. Hi, Pamela. This sounds like a good application for an iron pipe or, preferably a galvanized pipe because the copper will plate itself out onto it, removing much of the copper before it even exits the pipe.

Small amounts of copper will kill algae but small amounts should not disturb cattails or fish.


Ted Mooney,
Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Pine Beach, New Jersey


A. It will depend on the concentration of the runoff in ppm Cu. I don't believe you will have a problem with the plants or the fish from a few feet of copper gutter. It is when people use the sewer or stream to release kilograms of heavy metals over a year that pollution becomes a problem.

tom pullizzi portrait
Tom Pullizzi
Falls Township, Pennsylvania

April 26, 2010

Q. I'm doing a paper on pennies and if the treasury should keep them or not and one of my main points is that people throw pennies on the ground and I was wondering if the copper in the pennies could be a danger to our environment.

Aidan N [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
student - Wilmette, Illinois

Earth Science for Every Kid

April 26, 2010

A. Hi, Aidan. I hate to tell you this, but I don't think that is really a well formed question yet. Let me explain why . . .

Is a beaver, who gnaws down trees and blocks a stream, thus converting a woodland to a bog, a "danger to the environment"? There really isn't an answer to that question, of course, because we are trying to abbreviate a very complicated concept into the shorthand catch phrase, "danger to the environment", without thinking thru exactly what that phrase means to us. You could write a whole book on what exactly is meant by a "danger to the environment".

I would doubt that a few pennies will cause copper contamination that alters a measurable aspect of life. My suspicion, based on seeing pennies lie on the ground undisturbed for months on end, is that no animals are liable to eat them. But pennies thrown on the ground do comprise ugly litter and they are an unnatural pollution.


Ted Mooney,
Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Pine Beach, New Jersey

January 25, 2011

Dear Ted,
I hate to tell you this, but small amounts of copper do, in fact, pose a real problem to the environment. The current amount that begins to affect aquatic organisms is currently as low as 8.0 ppm (8 µg/L) depending on the hardness of the water. Copper gutters & copper pennies may not appear to affect the cattails or the fish (although salmon are quite sensitive), however small creatures such as Daphnia and Cerodaphnia will go the way of the Dodo Bird, if we continue to nurture a mindset that "a little bit doesn't hurt."

Chris W, PhD [last name deleted for privacy by Editor]
Environmental Protection - Chicago, Illinois USA

August 19, 2011

Hi, Chris. Thanks for the insight.

Unfortunately this thread mixes the practical problem of what to do about a house that has copper gutters, with a science project about whether the mint should use a different metal for pennies due to the environmental danger of copper run-off from abandoned pennies. That does make it a little hard to move the discussion forward.

But I consider 8.0 ppm of copper to be an awful lot, not a little, based on being in the plating industry which hasn't been permitted to discharge even half that much to a city sewer leading to a treatment works (let alone a stream), for three decades now.

But please don't just yell in from the bleachers that the coaches stink; rather, please get into the game and offer Pamela a suggestion of what she should do about her gutter runoff, or help Aiden take a defensible position on what the mint should make pennies from. Thanks!


Ted Mooney,
Teds signature
Ted Mooney, P.E.
Pine Beach, New Jersey

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