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Copper Shown to Slow Spread of Superbugs

November 04, 2008 09:32 AM
by Denis Cummings
A U.K. hospital has found that copper surfaces contained 95 percent fewer bugs than stainless steel.

Copper Reduces Spread of Bacteria

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In April 2007, Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital replaced many of its stainless steel surfaces—including faucets, toilet seats, door handles and push plates—with copper. Over the next 18 months, it tested the bacterial content on its stainless steel and copper surfaces and found that copper surfaces contained 95 percent fewer bugs.

“The findings of a 90 to 95 per cent killing of those organisms, even after a busy day on a medical ward with items being touched by numerous people, is remarkable,” said Professor Tom Elliott, deputy medical director at University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. “It may well offer us another mechanism for trying to defeat the spread of infection.”

Copper has long been known for its healing power, and was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to treat wounds. However, over the past several decades, most hospitals have eschewed copper for the more modern stainless steel, even as some doctors said they preferred copper.

“The stainless steel, to the eye, looks a nice, bright, clean surface,” Southampton University Professor Bill Keevil told BBC Radio Ulster in 2004. “But stainless steel can scratch and so we get, effectively, microscopic valleys where bacteria can hide in the valleys.”
Selly Oak had a similar problem with its copper figments prior to the beginning of the study. According to Elliott, many of the hospital's brass fixtures, which contain copper, were covered in chrome “to make them look nice,” which negated “any properties in the copper alloy which could kill bugs.”

With copper proven to provide such a large benefit, other hospitals may follow Selly Oak in installing copper surfaces. Along with a comprehensive “deep clean” of U.K. hospitals and an insistence on personal hygiene, British health officials believe that the spread of superbugs can be effectively contained.

“No one magic bullet will cure the problem,” said Derek Butler, chairman of MRSA Action UK. “You can have hand washing, that will not cure it on its own. Sterilisation of equipment will not cure it on its own. The actual deep cleaning of hospitals will not cure it on its own and neither will this. However, put them all together and you have quite a powerful weapon there to take on the bacterium.”

Background: Superbugs

“Superbugs” are drug-resistant bacterial infections that include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and C. difficile. They develop in hospitals, where infections can spread easily between sick patients. Many of these infections are spread by touch, either person to person or through objects such as doorknobs, medical instruments, computer keyboards and toilets.

Most efforts in fighting superbugs have focused on cleaning, whether it be by disinfecting hospitals, sterilizing instruments or emphasizing personal hygiene. The installation of copper would reduce the amount of cleaning necessary to keep a hospital sanitary.

“This is the first time I have seen anything like copper in terms of the effect it will have on the environment,” said Elliott in the Birmingham Post. “We have talked about different agents in the past, cleaning agents like chlorine and hydrogen peroxide, which have an immediate effect but not a long lasting effect like copper.”

Related Topic: Copper prices

The price of copper has been rising significantly over the past three years, leading to a rise in copper theft. Foreclosed homes have been the most common target for copper theft, but some hospitals have also been victimized. The California’s Oncology Therapies of Vista had copper from its radiation machines stolen, leading to patients missing a day of radiation therapy.
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