Too much copper?

Too much copper?
One of the repeated criticisms of WDDTY has been its tendency to be alarmist, to publish fringe information without context, and to give the impression of a logically developed argument but without the essential step: logic. A  good example is the call-out “Too much copper?” within the article on “6 ways to keep Alzheimer’s at bay”

WDDTY presents entirely mainstream findings, then tacks on a fringe opinion published in a magazine devoted to the highly problematic chelation therapy subculture within alternative medicine. The result is an alarmist piece which raises fears while omitting very simple factual information that would reassure readers and help them reduce exposure at minimal cost.



Too much copper?

Is the copper piping in your home’s plumbing system contributing to Alzheimer’s? It’s still a controversial theory, but there’s plenty of evidence to support it.

In 2003, researchers added copper to the distilled water fed to laboratory rabbits and the animals soon started to develop beta-amyloid protein in their brains, the main building block of the plaques, or particles, seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.1 The same pattern was found in beagles and mice when copper was added to their drinking water.2

Reference 1: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2003; 100: 11065–9 Copper, β-amyloid, and Alzheimer’s disease: Tapping a sensitive connection Ashley I. Bush, Colin L. Masters, and Rudolph E. Tanzi

Reference 2: J Nutr Health Aging, 2006; 10: 247–54 Trace copper levels in the drinking water, but not zinc or aluminum influence CNS Alzheimer-like pathology. Sparks DL et. al.

Copper is an essential mineral, it is essential to blood formation and is also necessary for the maintenance of blood vessels, nerves, bones and the immune system.

Water accounts for around half of the exposure to dietary copper, the other half being in food, especially whole grains, beans, nuts, potatoes and blood-rich offal (kidney, liver). Prunes, cocoa, dark leafy greens and yeast also contain copper.

These papers discuss effects of copper on the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), though the first specifically notes that “[a]lthough intriguing, there are several caveats before concluding from these data that AD itself is fostered by environmental exposure to copper.”

The proposed mechanism is the accumulation of β-amyloid (Aβ) in the brains of AD patients.. Elevated levels of both cholesterol and copper are linked to conversion of Aβ from a functional peptide into a neurotoxin.

Interestingly, this runs counter to the message elsewhere in WDDTY’s content that cholesterol is allegedly not a problem.

So what’s the link? Normally our brains have a natural defence against beta-amyloid buildup. Molecules called LRPs (low-density lipoprotein receptors) act as the brain’s police force and move amyloid in the brain’s capillaries to the rest of the body’s circulation, from where it is then eliminated. However, laboratory tests have shown that copper damages LRPs to such an extent that they stop working.3

Reference 3: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2013; 110: 14771–6 Low levels of copper disrupt brain amyloid-β homeostasis by altering its production and clearance Itender Singh et. al.

This study states that:

The causes of the sporadic form of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are unknown. In this study we show that copper (Cu) critically regulates low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1–mediated Aβ clearance across the blood–brain barrier (BBB) in normal mice. Faulty Aβ clearance across the BBB due to increased Cu levels in the aging brain vessels may lead to accumulation of neurotoxic Aβ in brains. In a mouse model of AD low levels of Cu also influences Aβ production and neuroinflammation. Our study suggests that Cu may also increase the severity of AD.

In other words, this is, as the other studies have stated, early work on a promising line of inquiry.

Dr George Brewer at the University of Michigan Medical School, who is convinced of the link between copper in our drinking water and Alzheimer’s, says the development of the modern plumbing system has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the disease. He argues that Alzheimer’s was still relatively rare until the 1950s, when there was a sudden increase in both the disease and the modernization (using copper) of plumbing systems across the US. A similar pattern has been seen in developing countries as their homes also become modernized.4

Reference 4: Townsend Letter, 2013; 363: 52–8 Too Much Copper, Too Little Zinc, and Cognitive Deterioration in Alzheimer’s Disease by George J. Brewer, MD, and John D. MacArthur (see note 1)

This is classic SCAM bait-and-switch tactics. Yes, there is evidence that copper plays a role in the progression of AD, though as yet there is no good evidence that it causes the Aβ buildup in the first place.

There is evidence that some copper comes from copper piped water supplies; this varies according to the temperature and chemistry of the water (very acid or alkaline areas have higher levels of copper in solution). It is heavily dependent on the time water has been standing – first-draw levels are higher, levels in free-running water are negligible unless the municipal supply is copper piped (rare).

Is the rise of Alzheimer’s associated with the spread of copper piping in homes, and is the link causal?

Copper piping started being widely used in the 1930s, as far as I can tell. Lead poisoning was identified in the late 19th Century and white lead paint was banned for interior use in France, Belgium and Austria as early as 1909. Lead piping was a much less significant source of lead toxicity, but nonetheless its role was well established by the end of the 19th Century and as early as 1890 the Massachusetts Health Board was advising against its use. By the 1920s many cities had building codes forbidding the use of lea. Lead use declined from the 1930s onward, causing the lead industry much concern (see note 2). Lead pipes were not finally banned until 1989 in the USA (Safe Water Drinking Act Section 1417(a)(1)). I can find no evidence of a step change in the 1950s.

What is clear is that the 1950s was a time of rapidly rising life expectancy.

Median age at death in USA
Median age at death in USA

Alzheimer’s is primarily a disease of old age. it is not in the least surprising that Alzheimer’s diagnosis increased steeply during the 1950s and has continued to rise since. This would happen whatever the provoking factors.

Copper does have a role in the progression of AD, but there is no obvious cause for alarm. Simply running the tap until the standing water is flushed, will substantially reduce exposure. Commercial cartridge water filters remove up to 99% of heavy metal ions including copper and lead.

This is the really puzzling point. Having raised fear about copper, the article fails to mention an extremely cheap and simple measure that reduces exposure. Readers who go on to search for the keywords and concepts mentioned, are likely to rapidly end up in the long grass of quackery and expensive solutions.


  1. The Townsend Letter is an alternative medicine “journal” edited by Jonathan Collin, a chelation quack, that has no evident peer-review. It has an ideological bias towards content that points the finger of blame for illness, towards metals, since the editor’s business consists of removing such metals. Chelation quacks typically diagnose the presence of these metals using fraudulent diagnostic practices. Collin promotes chelation for vascular disease. This indication is contradicted by the findings of the NCCAM Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) program; chelation quacks have responded to this refutation by carrying right on as if it didn’t exist.
  2. Am J Public Health. 2008 September; 98(9): 1584–1592. The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes “A MODEST CAMPAIGN” Richard Rabin, MSPH

What Doctors Don't Tell You
Why don’t doctors tell you that copper piping causes Alzheimer’s?

Because it’s an alarmist, agenda-driven over-simplification.

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2 thoughts on “Too much copper?”

  1. Pingback: Daily Overload – News in short (18-11-2013) « The Skeptical Bear

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