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COVID-19 Requires Rethink – Time to Bring Back Copper in Public Spaces?

Rock beats scissors. Scissors beat paper. Copper beats coronavirus.

It sounds flippant, but at this moment of utmost seriousness, there’s a truth to it. 

In a new piece, senior writer for Fast Company Mark Wilson discusses the thesis of Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton, whose research has led him to conclude that copper — recognized by ancient civilizations as vital for our health for more than 5,000 years for its antimicrobial properties, but replaced in many 20th century building applications by new materials — should be brought “back in public spaces, and hospitals in particular.”

Writes Wilson:

“When influenzas, bacteria like E. coli, superbugs like MRSA, or even coronaviruses land on most hard surfaces, they can live for up to four to five days. But when they land on copper, and copper alloys like brass, they die within minutes. ‘We’ve seen viruses just blow apart,’ says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. ‘They land on copper and it just degrades them.’”

Wilson recounts that medical researcher Phyllis J. Kuhn critiqued the disappearance of copper from hospitals as early as 1983, noting that while sleek and shiny stainless steel can look “reassuringly clean,” tarnished brass, while looking dirty and contaminating, actually kills bacteria. Decades later, Bill Keevil and other researchers have furthered Kuhn’s findings.

Wilson cites a 2015 study grant issued by the Department of Defense comparing infection rates at three hospitals. Researchers found that “when copper alloys were used in three hospitals, it reduced infection rates by 58%.”  A similar study conducted in 2016 focused on a pediatric intensive care unit drew similar conclusions and found an equally impressive reduction rate in infections courtesy of copper alloys. 

As for cost, Wilson points out:

“Copper is always more expensive than plastic or aluminum, and often a pricier alternative to steel.  But given that hospital-borne infections are costing the healthcare system as much as $45 billion a year—not to mention killing as many as 90,000 people—the copper upgrade cost is negligible by comparison.”

The current COVID-19 pandemic will require creative thinking on many levels. As Wilson, summing up Keevil’s findings, writes:

“In the face of an unavoidable future full of global pandemics, we should be using copper in healthcare, public transit, and even our homes. And while it’s too late to stop COVID-19, it’s not too early to think about our next pandemic.”

 Copper may have been around for thousand of years — but sometimes a new idea is really an old one, and bringing copper back into public spaces may prove to be another weapon in battling the COVID-19 pandemic.