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The Power of Copper Against Germs (and Why Hospitals Should Use It)

The healthcare industry is in constant battle against infection and disease, and any new tool or material that could keep infections at bay is practical...

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|Mar 25|magazine13 min read

The healthcare industry is in constant battle against infection and disease, and any new tool or material that could keep infections at bay is practically priceless. As research over the past few years is showing, copper could end up with a critical place as an indispensible and relatively simple tool in this battle.

Copper in Study

In 2013, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina published a study in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology discussing the results of an experiment testing the antibacterial properties of copper. These researchers examined the effects of coating certain hospital surfaces in intensive care units—areas like trays and bed rails, remote controls, and IV poles—with a copper alloy. The study found that, even with the copper alloy covering only limited high traffic surface areas within a room, this simple treatment could be enough to reduce the spread of bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) by more than 50 percent.

Why Copper?

2013 was far from the first time that science has turned to copper for its antibacterial properties—the metal has been the subject of numerous medical papers in various publications, and has been recognized for these properties for centuries. But what exactly is it about copper that can make it such an effective deterrent to bacteria? It comes down to the way that copper interacts with a bacterial cell’s physical makeup:

Copper is used to transmit electrons in walls for electricity. Similarly, bacteria will donate electrons to the copper metal, which places the organism in an electrical deficit. As a consequence, free radicals are generated inside the cell. The cell's proteins essentially get bleached, and its DNA get fractured. The electrical potential of the cell also gets collapsed.

DNA fracturing is clearly inconvenient for bacteria trying to reproduce, but it’s good news for facilities looking to prevent and eradicate a bacterial colony’s spread.

Copper in Action

Some hospitals are already experimenting with implementing copper alloy on select surfaces. One has been the Asklepios Clinic Harbur in Hamburg, Germany, where stainless steel door handles have been systematically replaced with handles made of copper alloy. As the hospital reports, its findings as a result of its own experiment match up perfectly with previous reports of copper alloy reducing bacterial presence by half:

When compared to handles of stainless steel or artificial materials, copper reduced microbes by 50 percent. "We were able to determine that, on copper handles, fewer pathogens were traceable," says Susanne Huggett, who heads the clinic's large-scale MEDILYS laboratory.

The clinic has been on a long term quest to test the potential of copper in a medical setting, working with Germany’s Copper Alliance, and has proven a decrease in not only bacteria but fungal infection and virus transfer as well. At the time of the report, it was leading the copper movement in Europe with the opening of a new wing featuring 600 copper door handle replacements.

Are There Any Disadvantages?

If copper sounds too good to be true, why haven’t more hospitals already adopted the metal wholesale? The truth is that there are a couple of disadvantages that have kept would-be users at bay. For one thing, as the Hamburg clinic found out, copper has an image problem:

Copper furnishings do have a superficial disadvantage, however. They often look dirty, even when freshly cleaned. In addition, says Hugget, "the handles were discolored, since they were regularly - at least once per day - cleaned with surface disinfectant." The laboratory director adds that while the greenish hue of oxidized copper might appear beautiful on roofs or rainspouts, green door handles leave the impression of an unsanitary clinic.

The clinic is attempting to fix this with tests on a different type of copper alloy that could resist oxidation. Nevertheless, this does not combat the second problem with copper: it’s expensive. It’s more expensive than steel, and much more expensive than plastic—it can be difficult to find funds within a hospital’s budget to accommodate a switchover to copper bed rails and door handles when there are so many other concerns like updated equipment and renovations to consider as well.  

Why Start Now?

Despite the drawbacks, the numbers speak for themselves: according to the World Health Organization, 7 out of 100 hospitalized patients at any given time will acquire a health care-associated infection—that number climbs to 10 out of 100 in developing countries, and to 30 percent among intensive care patients.

“Hundreds of millions of patients are affected by health care-associated infections worldwide each year, leading to significant mortality and financial losses for health systems,” the organization states, adding that the costs are significant in more ways than one. In the United States alone, these infections account for roughly 99,000 deaths annually and nearly $6.5 billion in financial losses for healthcare facilities.

On both counts, these are losses that no hospital can afford. It seems that while the initial costs of copper might be high, the ROI in terms of improved health could be worth their weight in gold.