No matter where in the world you are, one of the most dangerous places to go if you’re in need of medical attention is any facility that offers healthcare services. Whether it’s low-tech and rudimentary or an expensive state-of-the-art hospital, bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens thrive and spread in these environments such that you may come in with one issue and go home with several others.

Most common among these acquired disorders are pneumonia associated with the use of ventilators, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, blood stream infections, and infections at the site of the surgery. Such complications cost the U.S. approximately $45 billion annually – not counting loss of productivity and income for the patient fortunate enough to survive and recover. Approximately 100,000 patients a year in this country are not so fortunate.

Since approximately 80% of infections come from touching hospital surfaces – and the most frequently touched and contaminated surface is the patient’s bed rails – the ICU’s in three hospitals have replaced stainless steel or plastic bed rails with ones made of copper since it kills bacteria, yeast, viruses and fungi on contact. By contrast, microbes can live for months on stainless steel and other surfaces.

So, why didn’t someone think of this sooner? Actually, they did – beginning with the ancient Egyptians, who used copper to sterilize wounds and drinking water. The Greeks, Romans and Aztecs, among others, all used copper and copper compounds to treat a wide range of medical problems. In the 19th century, in Paris, France, it was observed that copper workers maintained immunity during successive cholera epidemics.

In the 20th century, organic copper compounds continued to be used to treat a long list of unrelated medical problems – including eczema, tubercular infections, syphilis, anemia, etc. But once antibiotics came along in the early 30’s, copper’s anti-microbial properties were mostly forgotten. Now that antibiotic-resistant ‘super-bugs’ are prevalent in hospitals, nursing homes, food processing facilities and factory farms, copper is once again being tested as a strategy for reducing pathogenic microorganisms.

As pointed out in a study led by Cassadra D. Salgado, M.D. on the use of copper to reduce HAI’s – Healthcare-acquired infections – “The inherent biocidal properties of copper surfaces offer a theoretical advantage to conventional cleaning, as the effect is continuous rather than episodic.” Copper was recently registered at the EPA as the first solid antimicrobial material.