Copper has been recognised as a hygienic material since the dawn of civilisation and, in the last two centuries, the anecdotal evidence has been supported by scientific research showing that copper has rapid and broad spectrum antimicrobial efficacy agaisnt harmful pathogens – bacteria, moulds, algae, fungi and viruses.
Watch the video below to see the live demonstration of copper’s rapid animicrobial efficacy against MRSA, in an experiment conducted at the University of Southampton in April 2011.
The antimicrobial uses of copper currently include fungicides, antifouling paints, antimicrobial medicines, oral hygiene products, hygienic medical devices, antiseptics and a host of other useful applications. The latest scientific research demonstrates copper’s antimicrobial effect on a range of disease-causing organisms including MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E.coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Influenza A (H1N1) and Aspergillus niger, indicating a role for copper in applications where control of these germs would be beneficial:
- Food processing
- Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)
- Through the ages
It is important to note that, while copper’s antimicrobial properties inhibit the growth of micro-organisms, it is also an essential mineral and vital to the good health of humans, animals and plants.
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Each year, hospital-acquired infections in England cost the National Health Service in the region of 1 billion pounds (infections result in an average extension to a hospital stay of 11 days per patient) and at least 5,000 patients die of complications from infections that they contracted in hospitals, according to a report by the National Audit Office. At any given time, 9% of hospitalised patients in the UK i.e. 300,000, have an infection that they did not have before they arrived.
Not all hospital-acquired infections are preventable but UK infection control teams recognise that a 15-30% reduction could be achieved through a series of infection control measures, including improved hygiene, which would lead to savings of approximately 150 million pounds a year. 80% of infectious diseases are spread by touch. It has been shown that a hand contaminated with influenza A virus will contaminate the next 7 surfaces that are touched.
Replacing frequently touched surfaces with copper or high-copper alloys such as brasses and bronzes, which are naturally antimicrobial, could be an important infection control measure and complement other measures such as hand washing, patient screening and isolation, and improved cleaning. Frequently touched surfaces in hospitals/care homes which could be made from copper or copper alloy include: door handles, push plates, light switches, bed rails, grab rails, intravenous poles, dispensers (alcohol gel, paper towel, soap), dressing trolleys, counter and table tops. These touch surfaces are all potential reservoirs of infection, and reducing the number of live germs on these surfaces could help in controlling the spread of MRSA and other hospital-acquired infections.
Copper alloys are homogenous, will go on working 24/7, will withstand wear and scratching, so integrating these materials into the hospital environment could provide another weapon in the fight against hospital- acquired infections.
Through the ages
Microbes weren’t discovered until the 19th Century but copper’s hygienic properties were well known through experience and tradition. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs used copper compounds for the treatment of disease and good hygiene. Egyptians used copper as a sterilisation agent for drinking water and wounds. Hippocrates treated open wounds and skin irritations with copper. The Romans catalogued numerous medicinal uses for copper for various diseases. The Aztecs treated sore throats with copper, while Persia and India applied copper to treat boils, eye infections and venereal ulcers. Once the germ theory of infection linked bacteria and other microorganisms to infection and disease, scientists began to understand how copper’s antimicrobial property could be harnessed to provide additional benefits.