A recent four-year trial has shown that using it on such frequently touched hospital items as bed rails, IV poles, tray tables and nurse call buttons reduces infection rates by more than 40%.
With hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, such a wonder material could have a profound impact on the health care industry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that each year HAIs kill more than 100,000 people and inflict costs of $45 billion. Nearly one out of every 20 patients in U.S. hospitals acquires an HAI.
So what is this miraculous material? Is it a technological breakthrough born of years of experimentation and hard work by hundreds of scientists toiling in hidden labs?
In fact, you probably have some in your pocket right now - this magic material is none other than ordinary copper, although its advocates prefer the term "antimicrobial copper."
Scientific ProofPreliminary results of the most recent study of antimicrobial copper, which was paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense, were presented last week at the World Health Organization's (WHO) First International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva, Switzerland.
Conducted in the intensive care units of three U.S. hospitals, the trial showed a 40.4% reduction in the risk of patient infection.
"We started with an idea and four short years later we now have a potential solution to one of the world's most devastating problems," Dr. Michael Schmidt told Reuters. Schmidt is a trial leader as well as professor and vice chairman of microbiology at the Medical University of South Carolina, which took part in the research.
And this isn't the first such study of the powers of antimicrobial copper. Previous research has been validated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which in 2008 registered five copper-alloy products and approved the claim that the metal could kill 99.9% of bacteria within two hours.
According to the Copper Development Association, an umbrella group for companies that develop and sell antimicrobial copper products, there are now 355 registered copper alloys.
It's a market just waiting to take off.
What's puzzling is why antimicrobial copper isn't already a popular commodity. In this case, modern science is playing catch-up to our ancient ancestors.
Throughout human history people seem to have recognized the red metal's mystical powers, often using copper containers to store and transport water; a practice still common today. Ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and the Aztecs used copper as a medicine and to forge medical instruments.
Although they couldn't have understood how it worked, they could readily observe the health benefits.
So how does it work?
Copper releases ions that penetrate the cell walls of microbes, disrupting their ability to function and reproduce.
Better still, copper retains its bacteria-killing effectiveness even when mixed with other metals such as nickel and tin. That has helped ease aesthetic concerns, as many of the current antibacterial copper products are alloys of a lighter color and a finish closer to that of stainless steel.
Copper EverywhereThe innate ability of copper to kill microbes could have profound implications in several industries if it becomes widely adopted.
We've already seen what it can do for health care. If hospitals replace their most commonly touched surfaces - most of which have no bacteria-killing properties whatsoever - with antimicrobial copper, it could not only save lives, but billions of dollars.
And that could prove very compelling to an industry facing rising costs and uncertainty over insurance reimbursements as a result of last year's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"It's the goal of every hospital to discharge you as quickly as possible ... in order to protect you from hospital-acquired infections and to control costs," Schmidt told Reuters.
Schmidt said bacteria on ICU surfaces cause up to 80% of patient infections.
Similarly, widespread use of antimicrobial copper for railings and door handles in public buildings such as schools, offices and sports complexes, as well as on public transportation, could help prevent the spread of the flu and other infectious diseases among the general public.
That would save the healthcare industry even more money and benefit many businesses by reducing employee sick days.
Antimicrobial copper's effectiveness against E.coli in particular has applications in the food and hospitality industries. The use of more copper surfaces in food processing plants and kitchens would likely greatly reduce the outbreaks of such dangerous infections.
And at least one company, Richmond, VA-based Cupron, has found a way to use antimicrobial copper in fabric, including socks, sheets and pillowcases. The bedding is supposed to fight facial wrinkles, but the socks were sent to the trapped Chilean miners last year to keep their feet free from infection.
Of course, should antimicrobial copper catch on in a big way - and with such clear benefits, there's good reason to think it will - one of the biggest beneficiaries will be the world's copper producers such as Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE: FCX), Southern Copper Corp. (NYSE: SCCO), and Teck Resources Ltd. (NYSE: TCK).
With plenty of demand from countless industrial uses and growing emerging economies such as China, the price for copper is already over $4.00 per pound. Increased demand from antimicrobial copper products could help push prices even higher over time.
In fact, copper's high cost may be the biggest factor holding back greater adoption of the metal in its rediscovered bacteria-killing role.
"The question is whether despite clear health benefits, you are going to be able to persuade governments and hospitals they need to rip out stainless steel or something else they've got in already," Jon Barnes, of metal industry consultants CRU Group, told Reuters.
However, the copper producers already are looking forward to the new markets antimicrobial copper could create.
"It's an exciting opportunity for the industry to have applications in hospitals and clinics, but also in public buildings in general," Freeport McMoRan president and chief executive Richard Adkerson told Reuters in March. "The science clearly supports it ... copper kills bacteria, and when you look at the statistics of the illnesses and mortalities from infections in health facilities, in hospitals, it's mind-boggling."
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