Testing metal’s mettle

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: March 6th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Picture a hospital room and you probably see a white bed surrounded by stainless steel fixtures. But that gleaming steel may soon be replaced with a more coppery hue if some doctors get their way.

Some intensive care units in New York and South Carolina are replacing their stainless steel fixtures with copper as part of an experiment to see which metal is better at warding off bacteria.

A recent British study already raised concerns about stainless steel’s ability to ward off germs. In the study, drug-resistant staph germs survived for up to three days on stainless steel plates. But when the plates were switched with pure copper, there was no sign of the germs after ninety minutes.

The findings could be significant. According to the Center for Disease Control, about one-point-seven million Americans develop infections while they are hospitalized. Of those, about one-hundred-thousand will die. So hospitals are constantly searching for ways to improve hygiene to control the spread of germs.

The American experiment is being conducted in a handful of I-C-U rooms at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as well as the Medical University of South Carolina and Charleston’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Steel fixtures will be replaced with pure copper and researchers will track the results.

Copper, notoriously expensive, might not be the only solution. Medical manufacturers are experimenting with drug-resistant coatings, and recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved sale of the first breathing tube coated with silver, a metal long known to repel bacteria.