The bacteria-fighting super element that’s making a comeback in hospitals: copper

By Lena H. Sun

Ancient Egyptians used copper to sterilize chest wounds and drinking water. Greeks, Romans and Aztecs relied on copper compounds to treat burns, headaches and ear infections. Thousands of years later, the ancient therapeutic is being embraced by some hospitals because of its ability to kill bacteria and other microbes on contact, which can help reduce deadly infections.

At least 15 hospitals across the country have installed, or are considering installing, copper components on “high-touch” surfaces easily contaminated with microbes — faucet handles on sinks, cabinet pulls, toilet levers, call buttons and IV poles.

“We’ve known for a long time that copper and other metals are effective in killing microbes, so it wasn’t a great leap to incorporate copper surfaces into hospitals,” said John Lynch, medical director of infection control at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, which is redesigning a waste-disposal room to incorporate copper on light switches and door handles.

For many hospitals, the death of Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan last year at a Dallas hospital heightened concerns — two nurses caring for him caught the virus because of poor infection control. And even before that, public health officials had identified nearly two dozen dangerous pathogens — many of them resistant to virtually all antibiotics — whose spread in health facilities and elsewhere could result in potentially catastrophic consequences.

They include MRSA, a potentially deadly infection that is increasing in community settings; VRE, which can cause a variety of infections; and C. diff, which causes life-threatening diarrhea and sends 250,000 people to the hospital every year.

On any given day, about 1 in 25 patients in acute-care hospitals has at least one health-care-associated infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumonia and surgical-site infections are among the most common. In 2011, about 75,000 patients with health-care-associated infections died in the hospital.

Hospital officials aren’t the only ones interested in copper. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport installed drinking fountains retrofitted with antimicrobial copper surfaces. In Colorado Springs, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s flagship training center uses custom dumbbells with antimicrobial copper grips. So do two professional hockey teams, the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. Even a Chick-fil-A in Morganton, N.C., installed antimicrobial copper on restroom door handles.

Copper can kill or inactivate a variety of pathogens by interacting with oxygen and modifying oxygen molecules. In bacteria, this disrupts the outer layer, damaging the genetic material and cell machinery, which can lead to cell death. A recent study found that copper also destroys norovirus.

It’s always working, it requires no human intervention, no supervision, and it’s acting continuously,” said Michael Schmidt, a microbiology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and one of the researchers who conducted the first and largest study of copper surfaces in hospitals.