Antimicrobial Copper:

a miracle metal in healthcare?

The rise in antibiotic resistant pathogens and reduction in the discovery of new antibiotics is quickly becoming a world-wide health emergency that has led scientists to seek new alternatives to fight off deadly bacteria. Copper possesses antimicrobial properties that could make it the miracle scientists have been looking for, both in preventing and combatting infection.

Copper is a germ killer

Bacteria rely on metals like iron and calcium to get the energy they need to survive. Copper, instead, is a metal that quickly and effectively destroys bacteria. Copper and copper-containing alloys, such as bronze and brass, exhibit antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties that have been scientifically proven to continuously kill more than 99.9% of the microbes that cause infections within two hours of contact. This so called ‘contact killing’ on copper-containing metal surfaces is rapid and extremely effective, killing from ten to a hundred million bacteria per minute. More importantly, copper completely destroys the bacteria’s DNA, preventing bacteria from developing a resistance to copper. Antimicrobial copper is also safe to use and has no harmful effects on people or the environment. In fact, copper is the only solid metal touch surface to have been approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in recognition of these antimicrobial properties.

Copper has historical roots

The idea of using copper as an antibacterial is not new. For thousands of years copper has been used to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Aztecs used copper-based preparations to treat battle wounds, burns, infections, rashes, inflammation and other medical conditions. Copper was even known to speed healing. Copper vessels were used to store food and water for safe consumption. In ancient and present-day India, Ayurveda has advocated the use of drinking water from a copper vessel because copper positively charges the water and kills harmful microbes. Yet that’s not all. Copperized water is also a natural antioxidant that has countless health benefits for the body. The vast use of copper for its medicinal properties did not remain in ancient times. Its use was carried throughout the centuries, until antibiotics became available. 

Antimicrobial Copper

Antimicrobial Copper as an alternative to antibiotics

Antibiotics, capable of quickly fighting off infection, were considered wonder drugs when they first became commercially available in 1932. The overuse of antibiotics over the years, however, has led bacteria to develop resistance, rendering  many antibiotics ineffective and even dangerous. At a global level, approximately 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant bacterial infections. For this reason, scientists have begun exploring the possibility of using antimicrobial copper as an alternative. While it is certain that copper is capable of destroying bacteria, the exact process in which it does this is still unknown. There are many theories that have given way to important research.

Michael Johnson, an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona, has taken on this very task. Given the toxicity of copper and the positive function it plays in our immune system, Johnson has embarked on a study to find out how copper works and determine if it can be used as an antibiotic. “We need to do basic science before we are able to create new antibiotics. We need to know how different bacterial systems work in order to target them. We’re making fewer and fewer antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is going up. That is not sustainable. We need to reverse this trend and find more things that will kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Johnson says. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has awarded Johnson and his team a $1.9 million grant to continue this groundbreaking research on copper.  Dr. Johnson’s work could be the path to uncovering copper’s potential as a novel, lifesaving tool in the fight against deadly bacteria,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins.

Copper can treat and prevent infection

Antimicrobial copper is so effective in combatting infectious bacteria that it is being promoted on an international scale. Preventing infection is half the battle to fighting it. Today, healthcare centers and hospitals have begun using copper on regularly touched surfaces like bed rails, chair arms, door handles, call buttons, etc. Studies in three hospital intensive care units in the US have shown a 58% reduction in hospital-acquired infections with the use of copper surfaces.  It is, thus, no surprise that copper is being implemented in public facilities such as airports, train stations, busses, educational institutions, restaurant kitchens and gyms. Even a theme park in Chile has replaced its most frequently touched surfaces with copper to reduce the spread of germs.

The benefits of copper are having a great impact on multiple sectors worldwide. The introduction of copper into the facilities, structures and services people use every day is a sustainable way to prevent infection. New research in copper’s capabilities to fight bacteria may lead us to find a new way to cure infection.  It looks like the threat posed by drug-resistant infection may be waning after all.

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