Throughout history, copper has been linked to health and well-being. Well before micro-organisms were discovered, the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs used copper-based preparations to treat sore throats and skin rashes, as well as for day-to-day hygiene.
Then, in the 19th century, came the discovery of the cause-and-effect relationship between germs and the development of disease, allowing scientists to begin to understand the potential of copper’s antimicrobial properties.
Today, copper is used in applications ranging from antiseptics and anti-fungal products, to medical devices and oral hygiene products by the pharmaceutical industry, as well as in other applications, such as water distribution, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Fighting infections and flu pandemics
It is now believed that copper could have a vital role in reducing the risk of transmission of germs that threaten public health in our hospitals, public buildings and food-processing facilities.
Approximately 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by contact. Among the micro-organisms most frequently identified in hospital-acquired infections are MRSA, coliforms, such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, as well as Clostridium difficile. And more recently, bird flu and swine flu are presenting a highly infectious global threat.
Scientific EvidenceLaboratory research findings at the University of Southampton, by a team led by Prof. Bill Keevil, on the survival of MRSA on surfaces, confirm that copper may play a key role in combating hospital-acquired infections. Their tests compared survival rates of MRSA deposits in a dry environment on stainless steel (the metal most commonly used in healthcare institutions), with a range of copper alloys.
The results showed that the staphylococci were completely deactivated after only 90 minutes on the copper and 4 1⁄2 hours on brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), whereas they were completely unaffected by stainless steel. This led Professor Keevil to the important conclusion that ‘the use of copper alloys in applications, such as door handles, trolleys, or any other work surface, could considerably reduce the presence of MRSA in hospitals and could thus reduce the risk of cross contamination between employees and patients in intensive care units’.
A promising weapon in fighting infection in hospitalsAccording to the EU’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, three million healthcare-related infections in Europe each year result in some 50,000 deaths. Not all hospital-acquired infections are preventable, but, according to the UK’s National Audit Office, the professional consensus is that these could be reduced by at least 15%.
Scientific evidence shows that copper’s antimicrobial properties can inhibit the most important pathogens challenging public health, including MRSA and Clostridium difficile (two organisms causing hospital-acquired infections), E. coli, and the bacteria which cause Legionnaires’ disease. Copper has also been shown to inactivate the Influenza A virus and so could even play a part in reducing the risk of a bird flu epidemic
For more information about copper’s antimicrobial properties, visit the Copper Development Association’s Antimicrobial page.