Last year’s swine flu crisis highlighted the role that ‘touch surfaces’, such as door handles, can play in the spread of infection, acting as reservoirs of infectious pathogens just waiting to be transferred to the next hand. Hand washing and regular cleaning are the two preventative actions recommended but recontamination is always just a touch away: germs can survive on common materials such as stainless steel, plastic and aluminium, for days – even months. To prevent this, architects are now specifying Antimicrobial Copper touch surfaces for healthcare buildings, where infection prevention and control are key concerns.
The scientific evidence for copper’s antimicrobial efficacy is compelling: research at the University of Southampton has demonstrated copper’s exceptional efficacy against the headline-making pathogens – MRSA, C. difficile, Influenza A and E. coli. Interestingly, results have shown that copper has unmatched efficacy, outperforming silver-containing ‘antimicrobial’ materials. Copper has also been put to the test in a clinical trial at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, in which frequently-touched surfaces – such as taps, toilet seats, light switches and door furniture – were replaced with copper equivalents. The results showed an impressive 90–100% reduction in contamination on these surfaces compared to controls, and a subsequent Department of Defense-funded project in the US backed up the findings earlier this year.
It is not just pure copper that has antimicrobial properties – bronzes, brasses, nickel silvers and copper-nickels are efficacious too. In fact a landmark registration in 2008 led to nearly 300 copper alloys being recognised by the US Environmental Protection Agency as the first solid materials eligible to be marketed with public health claims including a 99.9% reduction of the 6 tested bacteria within two hours (MRSA, Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacter aerogenes, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, E. coli O157:H7. and Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecalis).
With a range of differently-coloured copper alloys available to suit different designs and applications, and copper’s exceptional environmental credentials, it’s little wonder high-profile healthcare projects are already incorporating copper. For example, a cutting-edge facility at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital was designed with the goal of ‘setting the gold standard for infection prevention’, and Antimicrobial Copper door furniture was specified throughout in a bid to reduce the risk of healthcare associated infections in particularly vulnerable patients. Here, Dr Frank Edenborough, Consultant of the Sheffield Adult Cystic Fibrosis Centre wanted to create an environment to meet both the clinical and personal needs of patients: a ward that would combine key infection prevention measures with a comfortable and appealing environment to mitigate the boredom of sometimes very prolonged stays.
Recognising copper’s beauty as well as its antimicrobial properties, a piece of copper artwork was commissioned for the clinic, which will greet patients, staff and visitors when they enter. The artwork is by prominent, London-based metal smith Adaesi Ukairo, who has a long-standing love of working with copper and its alloys. “I was originally drawn to copper for its malleable qualities and its ability to patinate beautifully, and it rapidly became the material of choice to evoke my designs,” she said. “It was the perfect material to embark on an ambitious design for a 2 metre-long wall piece for the clinic. My intention is for the piece to act as a window, allowing the viewer to soar through a landscape, transported momentarily as they enter the clinic."
Dr Edenborough explains the role copper will play: “In a bid to set the gold standard for infection prevention in Cystic Fibrosis, we felt that copper could make an important contribution towards minimising surface contamination from hands or coughing, killing potentially dangerous pathogens in between cleans and augmenting rigorous hygiene protocols. It is our hope that, in this way, copper will help reduce the risk of infections.”
“Common materials such as plastics may look clean, but they have no inherent antimicrobial efficacy,” explained Rebecca Haverty of Race Cottam Associates, the project architects. “Antimicrobial Copper can help to fight infection, so we were very keen to use it. It seems almost too good to be true, and yet it’s proven to work. The range of alloys available means any project can gain from the benefits of copper. We chose to use an almost pure copper to make a statement, but a nickel-silver finish would look good too.”
The copper industry has developed a unifying brand name, Antimicrobial Copper, and symbol to help designers look out for products that are made from this most effective touch surface material. More information can be found on the dedicated website: www.antimicrobialcopper.com.