Ask someone to name a metal that is intricately entwined with society, and the most frequent responses heard might be gold, or iron. And while it is true that both have been crucial to the development of civilizations, there is another metal that may not trip off the tongue so quickly - copper.
Many know of the Stone Age and the Iron Age, but perhaps less well known is the Copper Age, also known as the Chalcolithic. This was the first Age in human history after the Stone Age and the first where metal was collected and made into tools, ornaments or weapons.Since that time, copper has become embedded in the history of human civilization. Today it is everywhere. It powers our homes and technologies, and carries the water to our taps. And it is this last point that is a nice segue into the theme of this post.
One of the several benefits of copper or brass (copper and tin alloy) being used in plumbing is that copper is antimicrobial and antiviral. With no way to clean the inside of the pipes, having a material that inhibits the growth of harmful germs is a big plus.
The fact that we know this does not come from recent advances in scientific knowledge. As far back as the Ancient Egyptians, copper was recommended for the treatment or prevention of infection. The Smith Papyrus (written between 2600 and 2200 BC) speaks of copper being used to sterilize drinking water. The Ebers Papyrus, this Ancient Egyptian medical papyrus pictured on the right (circa 1500 BC) recommended copper for a whole variety of ailments.
Subsequent civilizations were also convinced by copper’s medicinal qualities. The Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans, the Aztecs - all used copper or copper compounds. Some of the treatments sound bizarre, such as adding copper shavings to a wound, or mixing copper oxide powder with honey and consuming to treat internal ailments. But all had one thing in common. These ancient civilizations understood and seemingly trusted copper’s ability to aid in healing.
More recently, in the 1880s, it was noted that those who worked with copper in one form or another were better protected from the cholera pandemics that swept France. Copper was also later recognized as having a positive effect on arthritis sufferers.
So with this collective knowledge, why oh why, is copper not on the front lines of our battle against disease? Why are all our hospitals and medical clinics not adorned in copper surfaces?
The answer comes down to our love of plastic and of sleek, shiny, ever-clean looking stainless steel. The advent of those materials in our everyday lives nudged out copper and brass. Gone went the fashion for brass taps, light switches and door handles. Unbeknownst to most though was that ditching the old-fashioned brass meant throwing open our homes, offices and hospitals to more bacteria and viruses.
In the words of Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton in the UK, “we’ve seen viruses just blow apart” when on copper surfaces.
When a virus or bacteria lands on copper, the copper releases electrically charged particles which blast apart the cell membrane and destroys the DNA and RNA inside. By destroying the genetic code it means the cell cannot mutate or reproduce, meaning it cannot develop a resistance to copper.
Copper is like the Energizer Bunny™ of antiviral/antimicrobial treatments. If clean, it will keep on working. And if a resistance cannot be built up, then it really is a wonderful tool in our fight against deadly diseases.
So far, copper has been proven to kill Ebola, MRSA, E. coli and noravirus. A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine reported that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) lasted only four hours on a copper surface compared with 48 hours on stainless steel or 72 hours on plastic. Although more studies are required to replicate this data, this does suggest that copper could also be useful in the fight against COVID-19.
Other studies on stainless steel tell us that although it might look clean, it can be a veritable breeding ground for bugs. In other words, looks can be deceiving. The same actually goes for copper. Even when oxidized, green and grubby-looking, it still has the power to destroy the germs that seek to destroy us.
Some organizations have installed copper on high touch surfaces in recent years. The Francis Crick Institute in London, England for example, pictured here on the left, a prestigious centre for biomedical research, installed copper alloy high touch surfaces. If anyone should understand the implications of the research, it is them. More locally, in 2019, Teck installed copper surfaces in its Vancouver office in a bid to keep workers healthy. Before that in 2017, with Teck’s financial support, Vancouver General Hospital became the first ICU in Canada to incorporate copper into horizontal surfaces. Other healthcare centres and public facilities around the world have also done similarly. But considering these remarkable qualities, well might we ask: why isn’t copper employed medically with greater frequency?
A review of publications online suggests that a lot of it comes down to awareness. Not enough medical practitioners, architects, developers or general consumers are aware of copper’s properties. So, in a bid to help raise this awareness, and after a review of materials, here is what you should know.
Copper and its alloys are effective at killing viruses and bacteria. That includes copper nickel alloy which has a look similar to stainless steel. Brass too is also effective. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US has registered over three hundred copper alloy surfaces as being antimicrobial.
For it to be effective, the copper/alloy should not be covered in any type of coating.
Copper should never be used as a replacement for other sanitizing procedures. Instead it should be seen as complementary to them.
Even if copper is oxidized it will still kill germs. As long as there is a copper surface, it will keep performing and not lose its effectiveness.
The surface should still be cleaned and sanitized as regularly as other surfaces to ensure best effect. After all, it does not kill germs on contact. So on surfaces being touched regularly by different people, germs can still be transmitted over short periods of time.
There are currently not enough studies done to prove its effectiveness in the fight against COVID-19, though early indications are promising.
By Diane Mitchell
Curator of Education & Collections
In the time of COVID-19, when our lives have been turned upside down, it can help to reflect on what has gone before, in order to find hope for what may come.