Miracle metal. Copper takes on the superbugs

Every year, approximately seven million people worldwide acquire a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Of the four million in Europe, around 37,000 die. In addition to the immeasurable personal toll, HAIs cost over $80 billion globally, every year*.

Microbes that thrive on objects we touch every day cause these infections. Despite aggressive hand washing campaigns and routine cleaning, infection rates remain unacceptably high. Antibiotic-resistant organisms like MRSA have spread from the healthcare environment to schools, homes and public transportation.

In addition, antimicrobial resistance – the theme of 2011's World Health Day – and its global spread, threatens the continued effectiveness of many medicines used today to treat infectious diseases.

Painstaking research over several years by Professor Bill Keevil, Head of the Microbiology Group and Director of the Environmental Healthcare Unit at the University of Southampton, has established that the natural antimicrobial properties of copper and copper alloys dramatically reduce the presence of MRSA bacteria (staphylococci) compared with stainless steel, the most commonly used surface metal in health institutions.

Once settled on stainless steel, MRSA bacteria remain fully active for days. On brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) they die in less than five hours and on pure copper the superbugs are eliminated in 30 minutes.

Professor Keevil presented his findings at the World Health Organisation International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva on 30 June 2011.

The E. coli outbreak in Germany, May 2011

The crisis in Germany was caused by a strain of E. coli never before seen in an outbreak (O104:H4). New research conducted at the University indicates that copper could help prevent the spread of similar infections in the future.

Professor Keevil explains: “A study looking at copper’s efficacy against new strains of E. coli has just been completed. Although it did not specifically look at O104, all the strains investigated have died rapidly on copper.”

On a dry copper surface, the study shows 10 million E. coli bacteria are eliminated within 10 minutes. On a wet copper surface, one could expect a total kill within around 45 minutes. This antimicrobial property is inherent to the metal, and shared with alloys such as brass and bronze.

In the wake of the outbreak, hand washing and careful food preparation have been highlighted as key concerns, as has cross-contamination. Any raw food placed on a work surface can contaminate other food, or have bacteria transferred onto it from previous items resting there.

Deployed as a touch surface in food preparation areas, copper will continuously kill any pathogens that settle on it, reducing the risk of cross-contamination, and helping to prevent the spread of infection.

More information

* World Health Organisation figures

"Changing common touch surfaces in hospitals to copper can help break the chain of infection, leading to a more hygienic environment, which must have a positive impact on the well-being of patients, even in the face of antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

Professor Bill Keevil, Head of the Microbiology Group and Director of the Environmental Healthcare Unit
Professor Bill Keevil

Professor Bill Keevil

Professor Keevil demonstrates copper's antimicrobial properties in the lab.