Copper and compounds has a widespread use in a range of applications. It is used to make electrical products and electronics (electrical generators and motors, electrical power and lighting fixtures, electrical wiring, radio and television sets, computers, air-conditioning systems and other electrical appliances), in building construction (water pipes, roof coverings), equipment and heating (refrigeration units, motor vehicle radiators, home heating systems, steam condensers), and chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
It is used in pigments and dyes, electroplated protective coatings and undercoatings, cooking utensils, insulation for liquid fuels, coins, cement, food and drugs, metallurgy, nylons, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, pollution control devices, printing and photocopying, photographics, pyrotechnics and wood preservatives and timber treatments.
It is also used to manufacture anti-fouling paints, electrolysis and electroplating processes, fabrics and textiles, flame proofing materials, glass and ceramics.
Copper forms many alloys such as bronze (with tin), brass (with zinc) and monel metal (with nickel), also used in a variety of industries.
Applications of selected copper compounds
Copper (II) acetate is used as a fungicide, catalyst for organic reactions, pigment for ceramics, insecticides, mildew preventive, preservative for cellulose materials, stabiliser for polyurethanes and nylons, corrosion inhibitor, and fuel additive. It is used in textile dyeing, anti-fouling paints, electrolysis and electroplating processes, flame proofing, printing and photocopying, and pyrotechnics. It is also used as a 'shark chaser', or repellent, developed as part of survival equipment for military personnel who fly over shark-infested waters.
Copper (II) chloride is used as a catalyst for organic and inorganic reactions, mordant for dyeing and printing textiles, pigment for glass and ceramics, wood preservative, disinfectant, insecticide, fungicide, and herbicide, and as a catalyst in the production of chlorine from hydrogen chloride. It is also used in the petroleum industry as a purifying agent, in the manufacture of indelible, invisible, and laundry marking inks, in metallurgy to recover mercury from ores, in refining copper, silver and gold, in tinting baths for iron and tin, in photography, in pyrotechnics, and to remove lead compounds from petrol and oils.
Copper (I) cyanide is used in silver, brass, and copper-tin alloy plating, and as an insecticide, fungicide, and anti-fouling agent.
Copper (II) hydroxide is used in the manufacture of rayon, battery electrodes, and other copper salts. It is used as a mordant in dyeing, as a pigment, feed additive, in treatment for storage rot on cranberries, and as a fungicide against bacterial soft spot on lettuce, peaches, cranberries, and walnuts. It is also used in herbicides, insecticides, treating and staining paper, antifouling marine paints, corrosion inhibitors, electroplating processes, electronics, fabric and textiles, flame proofing, fuel additives, glass, ceramics, cement, metallurgy, paper products, pollution control catalysts, printing and photo copying, pyrotechnics, and wood preservatives.
Copper (I) oxide is used as a pigment in glass, ceramics, enamels, porcelain glazes, and artificial gems, and as an optical glass polishing agent, fungicide, insecticide, molluscicide, welding flux for bronze, heat-collecting surface in solar energy devices, insecticide for potato plants, catalyst in ammonia manufacture, solvent for chromic iron ores, and component of antifouling paint for ship bottoms. It is used in manufacturing rayon, reducing tar in tobacco smoke, purification of hydrogen, 'sweetening' petroleum gases, and oxidation of exhaust gases from internal combustion engines. It is used in galvanic electrodes, pyrotechnics, cloud seeding, corrosion inhibitors, electroplating processes, electronics, fabric and textiles, flame proofing, fuel additives, glass, ceramics, cement, metallurgy, paper products, pollution control catalysts, printing and photocopying, and wood preservatives.
Copper (II) sulfate is used in preserving hides, tanning leather, manufacturing copper salts, preserving pulp wood and ground pulp, preventing and controlling Dutch elm disease, and controlling algae growth in impounded waters. It is used in electroplating solutions, laundry and metal marking inks, petroleum refining, pyrotechnics, water-resistant adhesives for wood, metal colouring, tinting baths, synthetic rubber, insecticides, herbicides, anti-fouling paints, corrosion inhibitors, electrolysis and electroplating processes, fabric and textiles, flame proofing, fuel additives, glass, ceramics, cement, food and drugs, metallurgy, nylon, paper products, and pigment and dyes.
It is used as a battery electrolyte, flotation agent, pigment in paints, varnishes and other materials, mordant bath for intensifying photographic negatives, reagent toner in photography and photoengraving, fungicide for control of downy mildew, blights, leaf spots, apple scab, bitter rot, and peach leaf curl, and pollution control catalyst.
In agriculture, copper (II) sulfate is used in Bordeaux and Burgundy mixtures on the farm for the control of fungus diseases, correction of copper deficiency in soils, correction of copper deficiency in animals, stimulation of growth for fattening pigs and broiler chickens, a molluscicide for the destruction of slugs and snails (particularly the snail host of the liver fluke).
Copper (II) oxide is used in the ceramic industry for imparting blue, green or red tints in glasses, glazes and enamels. It is occasionally employed for incorporation in mineral supplements for insuring against an insufficiency of copper in the diet of animals. Among its other uses is the preparation of solutions for the rayon industry.
The petroleum industry uses copper (I) chloride in their 'oil sweetening' process. Ammoniacal solutions of cuprous chloride are employed for the absorption of any carbon monoxide which may be present in a gas as an impurity. Copper (II) nitrate has a number of small uses, such as in ceramics, in dyeing as a mordant, in fireworks and in photography.
Substance name: Copper
CASR number: 7440-50-8
Molecular formula: Cu
Synonyms: Cuprous compounds and cupric compounds.
Copper is a reddish-brown, lustrous, ductile and malleable metal. Copper is commercially available as ingots, sheets, wire or powder. It becomes dull when exposed to air, and when exposed to moist air it becomes coated with a green-coloured carbonate compound. Copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity.
Melting Point: 1083°C
Boiling Point: 2595°C
Density: 8.94 (water = 1)
Copper can be attacked by acids (both mineral acids (e.g. hydrochloric and sulphuric acids) and organic acids (e.g. acetic acid)), it is soluble in dilute ammonia. It can form salts, such as copper sulphate and copper ferrocyanide. Copper is incompatible with alkali solutions, sodium azide and acetylene. Copper can react with strong oxidants like chlorates, bromates and iodates, causing an explosion hazard.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) holds data for all sources of copper and compounds emissions in Australia.
Copper must be absorbed in small amounts on a daily basis to maintain good health. A daily dietary intake of 1-2 milligrams is required. However, high levels of copper can be harmful to health. Inhaling high levels can cause irritation to the nasal passages, mouth, eyes and throat, and ingesting high copper concentrations can lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Exposure to very high levels can damage the liver and kidneys and may lead to death. The Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council classifies copper as a hazardous substance.
Entering the body
Copper can enter the body by inhalation or ingestion.
Exposure to copper can occur by breathing air, drinking water, eating foods or having skin contact with copper (such as contact with copper jewellery (if worn)), copper dust or copper-containing compounds. Drinking water may contain high levels of copper if the water pipes and taps are made of copper, especially if the water has been sitting in the pipes for some hours. After the water is run for a while, the concentration of copper in the water decreases.
Garden products can contain copper to control some plant diseases. This is also a potential source of exposure.
Copper can also be used in waterways (lakes, rivers, ponds) as an algaecide.
Copper exposure can also result from being near a copper mine, a copper smelter, or where copper is processed into bronze or brass.
Occupational sources of copper may result from copper mining and ore processing, by inhaling high levels of copper dust and fumes. Other occupational exposures can occur in agriculture, water treatment, and industries such as electroplating where soluble copper compounds are employed. Certain foods prepared and left to sit for an extended period of time in unprotected copper cookware may contain copper transferred from the cookware surface. Modern cooking materials usually have an inner cooking surface such as tin or stainless steel that does not release copper and is safe for use in food preparation.
Workplace exposure standards
Safe Work Australia sets the workplace exposure standards for copper through the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. These standards are only appropriate for use in workplaces and are not limited to any specific industry or operation. Make sure you understand how to interpret the standards before you use them.
- Maximum eight hour time weighted average (TWA): 1 mg/m3
- Maximum eight hour time weighted average (TWA): 0.2 mg/m3
Drinking water guidelines
The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines include the following guidelines for acceptable water quality:
- Maximum of 2 milligrams per litre of water for health purposes
- Maximum of 1 milligrams per litre of water for aesthetic considerations
Copper and compounds occur naturally in the environment and is essential to animals and plants. Copper is toxic to many bacteria and viruses. Copper is commonly found as copper (II) in natural waters and the free copper (II) ion is potentially very toxic to aquatic life, both acutely and chronically. Its toxicity increases with decreasing water hardness and dissolved oxygen concentration, and decreases with high concentrations of dissolved organic compounds and suspended solids. Alkalinity and pH are other factors that influence copper toxicity. Copper is expected to bioaccumulate in fish tissues. Copper is normally complex-bound in soil, greatly diminishing its toxicity. No data are available on the short-term and the long-term effects of copper to plants, birds, or land animals.
Entering the environment
Copper occurs naturally in the earth's crust, and in seawater at low concentrations. It is also found in combined form in several minerals including chalcopyrite, chalcocite and bornite.
Copper may be released as particles into the atmosphere or as dissolved compounds in water. Copper is also released from natural sources such as volcanoes, windblown dusts, decaying vegetation and forest fires.
Copper usually attaches to particles of organic matter, clay, soil or sand.
Where it ends up
Copper, as the element, does not break down in the environment. Most copper released to air, water, sediment, and soil strongly attaches to other particles, thus reducing the toxicity of copper.
In 2000, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) and the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) established trigger levels of 1.0-2.5 micrograms of copper per litre of fresh water and 0.3-8 micrograms of copper per litre of marine water. A trigger level for sediment quality has been recommended at 65 milligrams of copper per kilogram of sediment, calculated on a dry-weight basis. In recreational water bodies, the recommended level for copper is 1 milligram per litre of water.
Mining and metal manufacturing are the largest sources of copper in Australia. Water supply, sewerage and draining surfaces, petroleum refining, log sawmilling and timber dressing activities can also emit copper. Copper is also involved in chemical manufacture, electricity supply, coal mining, cement, lime, plaster and concrete product manufacture, transport equipment manufacturing, iron and steel manufacturing, petroleum and coal product manufacturing. Other manufacturing industries where copper may be used include: beverages and malt, paper and paper products, glass and glass products, fabricated and structural metal products, motor vehicles and parts, wood products, ceramic products, food and beverage products, textile, yarn and woven fabrics.
Diffuse sources, and industry sources included in diffuse emissions data
Paved roads, windblown dust, burning fuels or wildfires, motor vehicles, solid and liquid fuel combustion, lawn mowing, leaching from antifouling paint on ships and boats, agriculture and barbeques (from burning fuel) are all capable of causing copper emissions.
Copper and compounds occurs naturally in the earth's crust in rocks, soil, waters, plants, animals and humans. It is also present in fresh and sea water. These are generally at low concentrations. This trace element is essential to many plants and animals, and occurs in biological complexes such as pheophytin, hemocyanin and tyrosinase.
Copper emissions may be present from the vehicle exhaust of cars, aeroplanes, railway operations and from commercial shipping or boating.
Many consumer products contain copper including, coins, jewelry, electrical appliances, cookware, some unwashed agricultural products, some commercial gardening products and some vitamin/mineral dietary supplements.
Sources used in preparing this information
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), ToxFAQs: Copper, accessed February 2007.
- Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) and Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) (2000), Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality, Volume 1, The Guidelines, accessed February 2007.
- Environment Writer Chemical Backgrounder, accessed February 2007.
- Merck and Co. 2001, Merck Index, 13th Edition, USA
- National Pollutant Inventory (1999), Contextual Information.
- Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, Exposure Standards: Copper, accessed February 2007.
- Technical Advisory Panel 1999, Final Report to the National Environment Protection Council.
- United Nations, International Chemical Safety Cards: Copper, accessed February 2007.
- Safe Work Australia, Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, accessed June 2021.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) - Updated October 2017, accessed May 2018