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Copper in hospital rooms may stop infections
Researchers installed copper alloy surfaces in the areas of the ICU room shown above.
May 14th, 2013
04:12 PM ET

Copper in hospital rooms may stop infections

Hospital-acquired infections are a huge problem in the United States. Wouldn't it be amazing if they could be prevented merely through the materials used in the hospital room?

Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina explored covering key surfaces in hospital intensive care units in copper alloy, and found that this is an effective measure against the spread of some key types of bacterial infections. Their study is published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Background

Up to $45 billion a year is spent on health care costs related to hospital-acquired infections, and an estimated 100,000 deaths occur annually because of them, the study authors wrote.

The antimicrobial properties of copper have been known for hundreds of years, said Michael Schmidt, the study's senior author - for at least 4,500 years. Ancient Indians realized that if water sits in a copper pot, this prevents illness, because the copper kills the bacteria. It's not used as often nowadays because molded plastics and stainless steel have taken over, being easy and in expensive.

How does it work? Copper is used to transmit electrons in walls for electricity. Similarly, bacteria will donate electrons to the copper metal, which places the organism in an electrical deficit. As a consequence, free radicals are generated inside the cell. The cell's proteins essentially get bleached, and its DNA get fractured. The electrical potential of the cell also gets collapsed.

"It's pretty hard to develop resistance from that multi-hit mechanism of action," Schmidt said.

How they did it

The study authors conducted the trial in the intensive care units of three different hospitals. Patients were randomly placed in copper or non-copper rooms. The study took place between July 2010 and June 2011.

Copper is an expensive material, so researchers carefully chose which parts of the ICU room should have the coating, based on the likelihood of a patient, staff member or visitor touching it. These included the rails that the patient uses to lift himself or herself out of bed, chair arms, the IV pole, the remote control and the tray that's used over the bed. On the whole, copper surfaces covered less than 10% of the room in the settings used in this study.

The researchers were most interested in the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE). They compared the rates of hospital-acquired infections from any cause, or colonization with one of these two types of bacteria in the patients. Colonization means the bacteria is present on the person - such as on the skin, respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract - without signs or symptoms of infection, said lead study author Dr. Cassandra Salgado.

Results

Rooms with copper alloy surfaces were associated with lower infection and colonization for both of these types of bacteria than in normal ICU rooms. For hospital acquired infections, the rate was lowered from 0.081 to 0.034.

Implications

The challenge, of course, is investing the capital into buying new furniture and equipment for ICU rooms, Schmidt said. But he calculates that the cost of outfitting a room in this way would be recovered, in terms of money saved from preventing infections, after three months.

The researchers did not look at whether this intervention affects a patient's 30-day readmission rate, or whether it would work in a hospital room that's not part of an ICU.

Other researchers are looking at whether copper also stops carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a deadly, antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria, Schmidt said.

"Bacteria have sex so quickly among their friends in their hospital environment, it may actually reduce the spread of CRE and other multi-drug resistant microbes, simply because the DNA is fractured," Schmidt said.

Some of the study authors reported financial connections to the Copper Development Industry, which is the market development, engineering and information services arm of the copper industry.

But this isn't the only research team that's looking into this question. A separate group at the University of California, Los Angeles, received a $2.5 million federal grant in 2012 to study the germ-fighting effectiveness of copper in hospitals. The cost effectiveness of that is still unclear, said Dr. Daniel Uslan, director of the antimicrobial stewardship program at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine.

"I suspect the costs will be favorable, but more data is needed and I hope our study at UCLA will answer this important question," he said in an e-mail. "We also don't yet know which surfaces in a room are most critical. Can you get by with just coating one or two items, or do all the touch surfaces need to be copper coated? Obviously the costs will change dramatically depending on the number of surfaces coated."


soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    "Bacteria have sex so quickly among their friends in their hospital environment, it may actually......." Blah Blah Blah! ........If the maintenance crews and hospital staff wouldn't have sex among their friends so "quickly", either, perhaps the hospitals wouldn't need copper fittings etc....

    May 14, 2013 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mary J Billings

      Yes. and if the cleaning staff actually CLEANED these surfaces EVERY day with vigor it would help considerably to forestall a lot of infections patients as well as family carry away.

      May 17, 2013 at 16:39 | Report abuse |
  2. florante deogaygay

    It should be inexpensive not 'in expensive"

    May 14, 2013 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. buongiorno

    excellant idea very thankful for the time and research put fourth in order to minumize the spread of deadly diseases, thank you.

    May 14, 2013 at 23:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Portland tony

      Copper's antibacterial properties have been known for over 3 centuries. Who are you thanking ?

      May 15, 2013 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
  4. CW

    Silver works the same.

    May 15, 2013 at 01:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Nathan

    Why is everything based on the 'cost'. What is the cost of someone's life if they lose it due to nasty germs laying all over the place. I would think the health of the patient is number 1, and the cost is number 2. Sad that it's the other way around.

    May 15, 2013 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sunshine100

    Recently a report indicated metals found in Alzheimers' victims may be part of the causative process. These include copper and iron (cast iron).

    May 17, 2013 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. FRE

    "The antimicrobial properties of copper have been known for hundreds of years, said Michael Schmidt, the study's senior author – for at least 4,500 years."

    That's interesting since until after the middle 1800s, the existence of bacteria was unknown.

    May 22, 2013 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RH

      I'm not certain of what he meant exactly, but I would gather he meant that one or more ancient civilizations observed that less sickness occurred in the presence of copper vs other materials. So, although they didn't know what was causing the illnesses, they still observed a smaller level of incidence. Again, I don't really know what he meant, that's just the way I took it.

      February 25, 2014 at 10:02 | Report abuse |
  8. RM

    Unknown to Western Science.

    May 29, 2013 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. sterishoeindia

    Hey nice Blog!! Very informative post!! Perfect explaination on Hospital Equipments

    June 5, 2013 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Laura

    Hospital acquired infection is a real issue throughout the world today. One hospital in Riverside, CA implemented the Steiros Algorithm. After implementation, housewide CAUTI rates per 1000 device days dropped from 5.51 to 1.28.resulting a 79%reduction. Cardiothoracic sternal wound infections went from 4.9% to 0.34%. http://www.hasc.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/reduction_in_hais_through_steiros_riverside.pdf. An Orthopedic Surgeon in Omaha, NE uses the Steiros Algorithm protocol, bathing patients with Steirolotion. He has not had a SSI infection in over 3 years. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3565391/. I found Steirolotion online and have been using for 2 years on my hands and face. I have not had a cold since. These people are people are making real progress in reducing infection. I don't know why everyone is not using this stuff.

    September 13, 2013 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. bill

    Copper may be more effective, but silver has been used for many years. Colloidal silver was used against bacteria and virus until antibiotics were invented. Silver still works on virus... check any health food store.

    Should we shift to copper?

    April 17, 2014 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply

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