Copper Sulfate: Pool Cleaner, Vineyard Helper or Unsuspected Summer Threat?

By Harry C. Karydes, DO, Toxicology Fellow

An interesting case came into the Illinois Poison Centerthis week.  A frantic father called after his 3 year-old daughter inadvertently ingested copper sulfate.  During the case review, it was discovered that the father was using the product as an algaecide to clean their outdoor pool.  Unfortunately, he placed this liquid in an unmarked clear plastic bottle which to his unsuspecting daughter looked like a refreshing summer drink.  She was immediately taken to the hospital where she was observed overnight and fortunately discharged the following day feeling much better.

For the history buffs, the first recorded use of copper occurred in agriculture in 1761 when it was discovered that soaking bean grains in a weak solution of copper sulfate prevented later plant damage through seed boring fungi.  Since that time it has been used in a wide range of industries from pyrotechnics to viticulture (the science, production and study of grapes). In fact, there have been well-reported examples of chronic copper sulfate toxicity in vineyard workers.  Repeated inhalation of copper sulfate mists (e.g. Bordeaux mixture) may induce a condition known as “vineyard sprayer’s lung” and was first described in 1969 in Portuguese vineyard workers.

 While there have been a number of reports of human suicide when individuals ingest quantities of copper sulfate, most people are exposed to copper sulfate in an accidental ingestion from an unlabeled bottle containing the solution.  In Illinois, most of these ingestions occur during the summer months when individuals are tending their garden and cleaning their pools.

Ingestion of copper sulfate results in vomiting due to the irritating effect on the stomach.  Given its location in the gastrointestinal tract, the liver receives the initial and most substantial exposure to copper sulfate poisoning. 

If you ingest or experience an eye exposure, immediately rinse the affected area and drink plenty of water.  If skin exposure occurs, remove all contaminated pieces of clothing, wash thoroughly with water and a non-abrasive soap, then call the Illinois Poison Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222.

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