No matter where in the world you find yourself, hospitals are filled with bacteria and viruses and potential infections for patients. Constanza Correa and her colleagues believe they have found a simple, and very old, fix that could greatly reduce inpatients' chances of infection—replacing bedrails with copper.
Copper definitely wipes out microbes. "Bacteria, yeasts and viruses are rapidly killed on metallic copper surfaces, and the term "contact killing" has been coined for this process," wrote the authors of an article on copper in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. That knowledge has been around a very long time. The journal article cites an Egyptian medical text, written around 2600-2000 B.C., that cites the use of copper to sterilize chest wounds and drinking water.
Cassandra D. Salgado, MD (who, besides being a hospital epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine, is also the medical director for infection prevention at the Medical University of South Carolina) explains:
...that the antimicrobial effect of copper-alloy surfaces is a result of the metal stealing electrons from the bacteria when they come into contact with each other. “Once the bacteria donate the electrons to the copper metal, this places the organism into a state of electrical-charge deficit,” she says. “As a consequence, free radicals are generated inside the cell, which ultimately leads to the cell’s death.”
Early data from a study done where copper rails were used in 3 separate hospitals' ICU units are promising.
Our study demonstrated that placing a copper alloy surface onto 6 common, highly touched objects in ICU rooms reduced the risk of HAI by more than half at all study sites.
Copper hasn't been used because it's cheaper to mass-produce plastics and stainless steel moldings. However, hospital related infections are considerably more of an economic burden for everyone involved.
In industrialized countries, 5 percent of patients develop these infections and the number is three times more in developing countries. These are infections like pneumonia and urinary tract infections. In the United States, the annual direct cost to treat these infections is $40 billion a year. Plus the patient loses time at work. And we don't consider what happens after a patient leaves the hospital. They may get sick [from these infections] later, too.
In the end, the bump in price to install copper bedrails is not that much. The larger question will be whether hospitals get more radical and actually outfit the numerous surfaces that can benefit from the use of copper.
Copper kills everything. Why wouldn't you use it?