Early signs of toxicity of essential trace elements are important. Some trace elements are available over-the-counter (OTC) and/or are present at industrial waste sites. Physicochemically similar trace elements compete for ligands, impairing functions, which is exemplified by the zinc-copper antagonism described long ago by Van Campen, Hill and Matrone, and Klevay. Intestinal absorption of copper is inhibited by zinc. Thus risk of copper deficiency is increased when the molar ratio of zinc to copper (Zn:Cu) is high. As shown by experiments, copper deficiency can occur in humans. Manifestations include decreased erythrocyte copper-zinc superoxide dismutase, increased low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol, decreased high-density-lipoprotein cholesterol, decreased glucose clearance, decreased methionine and leucine enkephalins, and abnormal cardiac function. Calculation of a preliminary reference dose for OTC zinc that assumed high bioavailability and uncertain copper intakes established 9 mg as a safe amount for 60-kg adults.