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Against Backdrop of COVID-19, State Assembly Bill Calls for Use of Antimicrobial Copper in Public Construction

Legislation introduced in the State Assembly of New York, a state that has been hit particularly hard by the current coronavirus pandemic, would require publicly funded construction projects to use antimicrobial copper.

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon (D-Marcy), would “require all new construction projects receiving state funding to use copper alloy touch surfaces – including door handles, bathroom fixtures, bed rails and handrails. She said the legislation would reduce the spread of infection and help boost the local economy by investing in locally made materials.”

Copper’s antimicrobial properties are well established, with the first recorded use of the material as an “infection-killing agent” dating back to Smith’s Papyrus, which is considered the oldest-known medical document in history and has been ascribed to an Egyptian doctor circa 1700 B.C., “but is based on information that dates back as far as 3200 B.C.” according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Subsequently, copper became a staple material in virtually all sectors of our society.  It is still the second most widely used metal used by the U.S. Defense Industrial Base — but in many 20th Century building applications, it has since been replaced by newer, flashier materials.

As researchers have pointed out in recent years, this may have been a mistake.   Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, experts like Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southhampton, have been calling for the reintroduction of copper into public spaces, and in particular into hospitals, because of its germ-fighting properties.  

A study conducted in 2015 showed significant reduction rates in infections in hospital patient rooms with components made of copper when compared to patient rooms with components made of standard materials.

Specifically looking at coronavirus, a new clinical study conducted by National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University scientists and published in The New England Journal of Medicine earlier this spring confirmed that while SARS-CoV-2 was stable “for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel,” it was only detectable on copper for four hours.

Buttenschon based her bill on these scientific findings, and says, 

“As we continue to do everything we can to flatten the curve and protect New Yorkers during these difficult times, it’s critical that we utilize new knowledge and technology to help mitigate any future health crises (…) By promoting the use of bacteria- and virus-killing materials, this bill will help safeguard the public health now and for future generations.”

Of course, reintroducing copper into public construction comes with a price tag.

However, while copper may be more expensive than other building materials, it has also proven to be extremely durable and recyclable, which may help to offset cost in the long run.  Add to that the fact that when looking at hospitals, specifically, healthcare-associated infections affect nearly 1.7 million patients each year in the United States alone, claiming more than 90,000 lives and resulting in billions of dollars in additional cost for patient care, using copper in public construction could become an investment that will pay for itself in reduced hospital stays and lives saved.

Buttenschon’s legislation has a companion bill in the New York State Senate and has garnered interest in the state’s Congressional delegation as well.

As ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty recently stressed:

“Hard as it is to envision, this won’t be our last pandemic. COVID, or some mutant cousin, will make a return visit this fall, next winter, or next year. Now is the time for smart moves to respond to this threat and prepare for future ones. New public spaces—and particularly the touch-points of human contact within those spaces—must become our first line of protection. Anti-microbial metals like copper are an indispensable weapon in this war.”

It is certainly encouraging to see that new ideas based on a proven old concept —  ranging from reintroducing copper in building materials, copper-infused fabrics, or copper-alloyed cell phone cases — are brought into this fight.