Copper can kill

The enzyme cyctochrome c oxidase is required by cells to produce energy, while the enzyme superoxide dismutase is needed to protect them against free radicals. Both contain copper atoms which is why copper is an essential element for human life. The parts of the body which require most copper are the brain, liver, and muscles, and it is in these that surplus copper is stored until needed, although this must not be at the expense of their own functioning, in which case the copper begins to act as a poison, even to the extent of putting life in danger. Too little copper can be equally threatening.

The genetic illnesses known as Wilson's disease and Menke's disease are caused by the body's inability to utilize copper properly. In Wilson's disease the copper builds up in the brain to dangerous levels, while in Menke's disease there is a dire shortage of copper because the gene for making the copper-transporting protein is missing. The result is retarded growth, and an early death in infancy because Menke's disease is incurable. However, Wilson's disease is treatable with drugs that facilitate removal of excess copper from the body.

The average person has 70 mg in their body and to maintain this they need to take in at least 1 mg/day, while breast-feeding women need around 1.5 mg. It has been suggested that these levels are too low and that an intake of 2 mg/day would be more beneficial for everyone, a view that seems to be supported by the effects that a low-copper diet had on volunteers. They were found to have increased levels of cholesterol, higher blood pressures, and a lack of energy.

It is not difficult to boost the intake of copper by choosing to eat copper-rich foods, and particularly meat, especially that of lamb, pork, and beef, where it is present as easily digested copper-protein. Among poultry, duck has the highest level, but most copper is to be found in seafoods like oysters, crab, and lobster. The plant foods with most copper are almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, and bran. Eat lots of these foods and you could take in as much as 6 mg of copper a day. At one time food processing companies used copper salts to enhance the greenness of canned vegetables such as peas but regulations now prevent them from doing so.

Some researchers have suggested that we get too much copper and that this antagonizes the iron and zinc in our bodies because it can displace these metals from their active sites. This may be why it has a detrimental effect on sperm production because these have a high level of zinc-containing enzymes. Those who have been exposed to too much copper have been adversely affected by it, none more so than workers on fruit farms and vineyards where copper sulphate is widely used as a pesticide spray in the form of Bordeaux mixture to combat fungal and bacterial diseases such as mildew, leaf spot, blight, and apple scab.

A few people have committed suicide by drinking copper sulphate solution and it has been estimated that as little as a gram can be fatal, although the irritant effect of this in the stomach automatically triggers off vomiting, making death unlikely. Only those who have taken a much larger dose have successfully killed themselves. Those who survive such attempts, however, are likely to suffer major damage to the stomach, intestines, kidneys, and brain. There have been accidental deaths due to copper, such as the young child which ate the sample of copper sulphate in a toy chemistry set, which is why this apparently safe chemical, with its beautiful blue crystals, is no longer included in these educational toys.

While there have been suicides and accidental deaths, would-be murderers are unlikely to choose copper as their poison, no doubt because the only readily available salt is copper sulphate with its easily detectable sky-blue colour and metallic taste. Even so, three girls, two aged 14 and the other 15, who were pupils at the H. J. Cody School in the small resort town of Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada, decided to poison one of their classmates with it on 17 April 2003. They stole some copper sulphate from the school laboratory and stirred it into a Slush Puppy drink which they bought for the intended victim at a local convenience store. The blue-coloured drink consists of fruit juice and finely crushed ice and was the perfect way of disguising the poison. Unfortunately the drink was passed around and seven girls sampled it, including the two who had added the copper sulphate, although they only took small sips. Within a few hours the other girls started to feel ill, and were vomiting, shivering, complaining of intense headaches, with dry and burning mouths. They were taken to the Sylvan Lake Medical Center for treatment. Happily, none of them died.

The three girls were charged with attempted murder when they came to court in August 2003, but they pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of administering a noxious substance with the intent to endanger life, along with the lesser charges of theft and criminal negligence. On 12 November they were sentenced to 60 days' detention in a youth jail, after which they were to spend a month in close supervision in the community, and were then on probation for 18 months. As is the case with juvenile crimes, none of the girls was identified by name.

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