Antimicrobial Copper: Does It Clean Itself?

Copper Bedrail.jpg

Everyone is looking for a solution to the issue of Hospital Acquired Infections (HAI). Many discussions I have had lately indicate that people are looking at copper as the solution. After all, it cleans itself doesn’t it? The answer is no. As with any surface material, copper needs to be cleaned and it needs to be disinfected. Copper does have some unique characteristics including antimicrobial properties. However, it is important to understand how these antimicrobial properties work. Do not assume it is just going to clean itself, because it will not.

There are many tests and studies being done on the uses of copper in the healthcare setting. I have just spent days reading through research abstracts and articles about copper and talking with a Project Engineer from Antimicrobial Copper, about their product. While copper does have antimicrobial properties, there are certain things that must happen in order for it to work.

When bacteria come into direct contact with copper ions, a process begins which results in eventual death of the bacteria. However, this is a process that takes some time. Copper does not kill all bacteria immediately on contact.

A comparison

In a recent video, published by Antimicrobial Copper, they compared, in a laboratory setting, copper and stainless steel (which does not have antimicrobial properties) surface materials. After disinfecting both materials and heating the copper with a torch to ensure it was completely dry, the materials were inoculated with bacteria. Within two minutes bacteria began to die. The surfaces were checked a few more times and after nine minutes there was a significant reduction of bacteria on the copper surface.  While this is impressive, it is important to note that it took nine minutes for the copper to effectively reduce the bacteria load on that surface. I would also point out that none of the bacteria died instantly on contact with the copper surface and that not all of the bacteria died, even after nine minutes.

High touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, faucet handles, bed rails, overbed tables etc. are constantly touched by many people. Cross-contamination happens when someone touches a previously touched surface, picking up pathogens that are then transferred somewhere else. Typically, there is not enough time between touches for copper to kill a significant portion of bacteria on that surface. So the potential to spread bacteria is very real. If someone assumes they do not have to clean a copper surface, can you imagine what would happen over time? It is absolutely critical that copper, as with any other surface, be cleaned vigorously and often, depending on where it is located.

Critical information

It is important to understand how the antimicrobial property of copper behaves so it can work effectively with you, instead of against you. When bacteria come into contact with copper ions a process begins to kill the bacteria. If the copper is being used in a wet area, the bacteria must go through the water to reach the copper ions before the process begins. While this does happen, it will take longer.  If this product is used in dry areas or is wiped down frequently when used in wet areas, the copper will work more effectively.

As I did my research I learned that you can use most germicides to clean copper. However, those cleaners that contain quaternary ammonium can have an adverse effect on the surface. In addition, any germicide that needs to be sprayed on and left to dry typically forms a coating on the surface. This may be a problem for copper as the coating does not allow bacteria to reach the copper surface, therefore inhibiting the antimicrobial properties. The coating must be wiped off in order for the copper to be completely effective. This may or may not be possible, depending on the germicide. It is extremely important that nothing gets between the bacteria and the copper. This means any kind of moisture, wax, oil or coating. Any of these things will inhibit copper’s antimicrobial effect.

Additional information

There is one more study I think is important to reference. In Potential use of copper as a hygienic surface; problems associated with cumulative soiling and cleaning by P. Airey, J. Verran, it was determined that an accumulation of the residue left on the surface from a cleaning product, over several days, inhibited the antimicrobial properties of copper.

I am amazed at the information available on this subject but read with caution. Laboratory testing is very different from actual use in the healthcare environment. When reviewing test information in an actual healthcare environment, make sure you understand the testing protocol. Antimicrobial Copper is a good product and can be a second line of defense when properly cared for. Having a clear understanding of how copper works and how it needs to be cleaned will allow this product to work effectively. Remember, copper does not clean itself.