Two years ago, Grinnell (Iowa) Regional Medical Center, a 49-bed rural hospital, began running an experiment. After terminal cleaning—the thorough scrubdown a room receives after a patient is discharged—germ levels were rebounding even when the room was left empty. The hospital set hopes on one natural substance that might keep microbes from returning: copper.
“It's such an elegant solution to help support improving the cleanliness of hospitals, because it cleans 24/7,” said Todd Linden, Grinnell's CEO. “You don't have to teach it how to wash its hands.”
Copper's sterilizing properties have been used since ancient times. More recently, researchers have discovered that copper alloys destroy MRSA, norovirus and other pathogens. These materials damage bacterial DNA and respiration, leading to cell breakdown, and inactivate certain viruses, often within hours.
Grinnell outfitted six of the 13 single rooms and three of the five double rooms in its medical-surgical suite with bed rails, toilet flush levers, grab bars, soap dispenser push plates, light switches, IV poles and other “high touch” surfaces made of copper alloy (90% copper, 10% nickel, by weight).
The same objects in the remaining rooms were left with their original plastic, porcelain and metal surfaces. Over the course of the next 12 months, researchers from Grinnell College took samples from both sets of rooms, regularly testing 20 different surfaces and objects, whether rooms were occupied or not.
After terminal cleaning, 88% of the bacterial samples from rooms outfitted with copper fell below recommended concentration levels. By contrast, 55% of the samples taken from the other rooms exceeded that threshold.
Grinnell is one of a handful of hospitals looking to copper to kill multidrug-resistant organisms and reduce healthcare-acquired infections, the direct and indirect costs of which range from $96 billion to $147 billion annually in the U.S.
When Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Va., decided to tear down and rebuild in stages, it took the opportunity to install copper-infused products in the first wing it replaced, which was completed in 2013. Hard surfaces, such as bed rails, sinks and countertops, were made with a copper-impregnated composite, and patients received copper-laced linens and gowns.