A recent article in Reuters reports on trials of anti-bacterial properties of copper carried out in the US by teams of doctors at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in South Carolina and New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We have heard about this product development before with countless reports supporting the use of copper and indeed we have written twice on these developments, including this recent post. The latest piece of research, arguably more thorough and wide ranging than anything previously published, takes four years of sample data and testing. The conclusions demonstrate unequivocal support of the benefits of copper’s anti-bacterial properties and have encouraged the authors to present their findings to the World Health Organization in Switzerland. Reports from elsewhere support the findings. For example, a hospital’s intensive care unit in the mining city of Calama in Chile’s far north installed copper plating and researchers noted a sharp drop in infections.
The hospital, built using copper revenues treats Codelco mine workers. The trial showed copper surfaces killed over 82% of bacteria within hours. Other studies show copper killed over 90% of bacteria.
The US research, funded by the Defense Department and spearheaded by the Copper Development Association leaves the reader wondering if the Defense Department will follow up on the findings by mandating all hospitals rip out their steel and plastic surfaces and replace them with copper. If they don’t how will state or private sector institutions do so? The EPA has already granted copper antimicrobial registration status for use in 75 applications in health-care situations, over 30 in public works, 46 in residential and ten in mass transit applications. This begs the question, how frequently does one see a copper door handle, handrail or faucet?
Widespread adoption of any new material relates more to aesthetic desirability than practicality. The idea of stainless steel work surfaces or fridge doors would have mortified our parents, thinking them far too industrial. White plastic or melamine laminates served as the best surfaces of the day, as much for their visual appeal as their ability to appear clean and germ free. The use of stainless steel by chefs and in commercial kitchens made it a desirable material for residential applications, and so copper will likely follow a similar path. However much the industry proves the case for copper’s antibacterial benefits, the material needs to make a leap of aesthetic desirability as much as anything. Even for use in hospitals and public buildings, architects and designers value the aesthetics appeal along with the anti-microbial benefits.
Can copper bridge the gap? Hospital-acquired infections, which kill more than 100,000 people a year in the United States and cost $45 billion per year to treat, create high costs both in loss of life and money. Which brings us to an even bigger problem than aesthetics, money. The cost of substituting copper for stainless steel could make it cost prohibitive, particularly for cash strapped government organizations. It may prove difficult to make a business case to outlay the cash today in the hope of saving money in the future.
Nevertheless the research may well move the needle in copper’s favor. Copper producers estimate between 250,000 to 1 million tons a year in additional copper demand could result from anti-bacterial uses, or about 5 percent of the world’s mined copper output. For a metal in surplus only to the tune of 40,000 tons in 2010 according to the World Bureau of Statistics, a market moving level of additional demand could prove significant. Whether it will ever amount to such figures remains, only time will tell.