Copper has been turned into pots, drawn into wire, and even gave the Bronze Age its primary ingredient and hue. But its beauty, durability, and array of uses isn’t what’s brought it to the attention of modern hospitals. Rather, copper and its alloys have a strong anti-microbial property: bacteria, fungi, and viruses die on contact with the metal. They can’t live on it, and they can’t reproduce either. Copper pipes have been made for centuries, but it’s only recently that research explained why such pipes also kept the water supply safer: bugs can’t stick to the surface and infect the water.
Copper’s microbial properties are now drawing new attention, this time from hospitals. Covering or replacing surfaces of a handful of oft-touched hospital items with a copper alloy has proven to be a bad-guy destroyer, even of MRSA, the antibiotic resistant super bug.
Healthcare-acquired infections are a big deal. In the U.S., 4.5% of patients develops one. Of those, one in four will die, and those who survive have longer hospital stays and higher readmission rates. That cost is huge: about $45,000 per patient per incident, which adds up to $45 billion a year.
“Many of those costs are not reimbursed to hospital systems,” said Cassandra D. Salgado, an M.D. and an assistant professor for clinical research in the department of internal medicine’s division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina. “We’re most worried about the impact that this has on our patients, but from the hospital and administrative point of view, we have to care about the financial impact as well.”
She is the co-author of a study funded by the Department of Defense, published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology this year, that examined three hospitals that replaced about seven percent of the surfaces in their intensive-care units (ICUs) with copper alloy. (The hospitals were the Medical University of South Carolina, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center.)
In South Carolina, Salgado says that they focused on surfaces that met two criteria: First, surfaces that had previously been shown in other studies to have high levels of bacteria contamination, and second, surfaces that were touched by a lot patients, care providers, and visitors. They covered or completely replaced six items in select rooms with a copper alloy: the bed rails, IV poles, call button, portable table (that extends over a bed), and visitor’s chair, as well as the monitor into which a nurse enters the patient’s vital signs. At the end of the study, they found healthcare acquired infections dropped by 58% in rooms with copper-retrofitted surfaces.
We don’t know why copper has this effect. The strongest theory is that ions from copper atoms first punch a hole into a cell’s membrane, which compromises the wall’s strength, and then the ions enter the cell and disturb functions inside it.
Salgado stresses that copper surfaces alone won’t stop healthcare-acquired infections, but that this is a first step in determining the best way to proceed if at all.
“Any good study will raise a lot of questions in addition to the ones that it tries to answer,” she said. Some of those questions are what level of copper retrofitting would be the most effective; is it possible to have too much copper in one room; how long will this copper be effective; would different surfaces need to be covered in a non-ICU environment because those patients tend to be more mobile; and what would this all cost?
Even at $10,000 per room in an ICU, the cost savings would be nearly immediate, while also saving lives. Copper may have acquired a new sheen.
Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She has written about running for the New York Times, Runner’s World, Running Times, and New Jersey Monthly. She writes a running column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She’ll be running her next marathon — slowly — in April 2014.
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Photo: Men in a workshop hammering sheets of copper for the construction of the Statue of Liberty / Albert Fernique / 1883. The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.