Copper as an antibacterial agent: a new use for the red metal

In 2008 Chilean institutions gave the green light to a study seeking to prove the antibacterial properties of copper on surfaces with significant clinical use. Positive results have prompted people to think of new applications for copper, including the public transportation sector and schools.

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For Chile, world leader in copper production, the red metal is a fundamental pillar of the economy. This underscores the importance of betting on the development of alternative uses for the mineral and in that way opening up new markets and guarantee demand that is sustainable and profitable over time.

In 2008 this reality prompted Codelco, the largest state-owned copper company in the world, to forge an alliance with InnovaChile to undertake research aimed at proving the antibacterial properties of copper on surfaces subjected to intense clinical use.

After two years of research and using the Calama Hospital Intensive Care Unit as the pioneering center in the use of copper in its infrastructure, the results so far have been positive and even better than what the Chilean researchers themselves had expected.

The preliminary laboratory analysis had proven that 99.9% of bacteria are eliminated after two hours of exposure to the metal and the only thing that remained was to recreate this situation in a real scenario, which is precisely what was done in Calama and another six hospitals located in different parts of the world.

After 30 weeks, during which time diverse samples were taken and comparative analyses made with other facilities that had not been intervened, it was proven that up to 92% of bacteria, including those resistant to antibiotics, disappeared from copper surfaces (bed rails and the arms of visitors’ chairs).

“Over 60% effectiveness would have been very good, meaning that these results are more auspicious than we had expected,” said Dr. Valeria Prado, a researcher at the Universidad de Chile which is also participating in the study.

New markets

While research still remains to be done, which will specifically be focused on verifying a reduction in the number infections associated with surgical wounds, mechanical ventilation, probes or catheters, those responsible for the study are optimistic regarding the development of new markets associated with Chilean copper.

This is the opinion of Omar Hernández, deputy director of mining, the environment and infrastructure for InnovaChile. According to the expert, “the sustained development of demand for products that can be used in hospitals will simultaneously promote the development of production lines or new companies dedicated to the field. In fact, there is even a chance that companies might emerge that can anticipate the situation with aggressive policies.” However, the professional acknowledges that the creation of a new industry will require a “sustained demand” for antibacterial copper.

But the research does not just open up possibilities in the health sector, as the chance to use copper’s antibacterial properties in clothing – like socks, for example – is also being examined while simultaneously attempting to validate the encouraging results of the hypothesis in hospitals and in other areas where the population would stand to benefit.

“We want to validate these results in other areas of interest, such as public transportation and schools, in addition to systematically publicizing the results and benefits in the public and private sectors and supporting all enterprises that are aimed at the development of manufactured products for this purpose,” Hernández explained.

Direct benefits for Chile

Currently 70,000 intra-hospital infections are reported every year. This situation increases patients’ stay in health facilities by an average of 10 days, causing losses to the state estimated at US$ 70 million per year.

Thus, the massification of copper’s use as an antibacterial agent will allow for the costs associated with patients’ stays in public hospitals to be significantly reduced. But that is not all. Beyond the major savings in public funds, this adds value to copper as an export product.

“Beyond the health benefits, a complementary one is the contribution to the development of an industry that adds value to our main natural resource and principal export product,” Hernández concludes.

This post is also available in Spanish