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Disarming a silent killer: Copper surfaces take out superbugs

Staff Reports | Public Relations | April 23, 2013

Dr. BradyMUSC microbiologist Michael Schmidt  has a copper stethoscope around his neck, one of the next items to be tested in research about copper's effect in reducing health care-acquired infections.

Copper has a new reason to shine.

The metal fared beyond expectations in a study published in the May issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology that found placement of copper surfaces in intensive care unit hospital rooms reduced the amount of health care-acquired infections (HAIs) in patients by more than half. The journal is supported by the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) microbiologist Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., said the results even surprised the researchers. He was expecting maybe a 10 percent reduction.

“We didn’t think we’d get a 60 percent difference. The average length of stay at the hospital bed at MUSC is four days. If you get an infection, it adds 19 days to the length of your stay. You don’t have to be a hospital economist to understand what that will do to costs. You can quickly understand how something so simple can really change the likelihood of you getting a bad outcome.”

Dr. Cassandra Salgado 

Lead author of the study, Cassandra D. Salgado, M.D., said patients who suffer from hospital acquired infections often stay in the hospital longer, incur greater costs and unfortunately suffer a greater likelihood of dying while hospitalized. “Our study found that placement of items with copper surfaces into ICU rooms as an additional measure to routine infection control practices could reduce the risk of HAI as well as colonization with multidrug resistant microbes,” said Salgado, who is associate professor of infectious disease at the Medical University of South Carolina.

In this study funded by an appropriation from the U.S. Army Materiel Command, U.S. Department of Defense, the proportion of patients who developed HAI and/or colonization with MRSA or VRE was significantly lower among patients in rooms with copper surfaces. These patients also had about half the number of infections, compared to patients in traditional ICU rooms. Researchers tested the capability of copper surfaces to reduce environmental contamination of these germs because copper has an inherent ability to continuously kill environmental microbes.

Performed from July 12, 2010 to June 14, 2011, the study operated out of three medical centers including MUSC, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center. South Carolina Research Authority’s Applied Research and Development division managed the study for its duration. Patients who were admitted to the ICU of these hospitals were randomly assigned to receive care in a traditional patient room or in a room where items such as bed rails, tables, IV poles, and nurses call buttons had copper surfaces. Both traditional patient rooms and rooms with copper surfaces at each institution were cleaned using the same practices.


The study found putting copper on heavily-touched surfaces, such as bed railings, can have a significant impact on reducing HAIs.

Previous attempts to reduce HAIs have required health care worker engagement or use of systems such as ultraviolet light, which may be limited because of regrowth of organisms after the intervention. In contrast, copper alloy surfaces offer a passive way to fight hospital-acquired infections, without staff intervention or involvement with outside providers.

HAIs often contaminate items within hospital rooms, allowing bacteria to transfer from patient to patient. Common microbes include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE). While several strategies exist to decrease HAIs, no methods have been clinically proven to reduce the spread of these infections.

Schmidt said MUSC will begin studying implementing more copper beds into the hospital and will begin testing other items, such as a copper stethoscopes, in future studies. The impact of these studies is crucial, he said.

“If a plane crashed each day, would you fly? This is precisely the number of people who die in the US each and every day, year on year from a hospital-acquired infection. We literally lose one jumbo jet each day. The health care teams have been trying to solve this problem for more than 100 years of how to prevent infections. What we did was go back to something old and found it works in something new – health care.”



MUSC microbiologist Dr. Michael Schmidt shares some of his favorite microbial facts.

  • Bacteria are everywhere and cover us from head to foot.
  • They account for about 3 percent of our body's weight, giving us about 7 degrees of our body’s temperature. “Without the bacteria in us, we’d be about 91 degrees and we wouldn’t live long at 91 degrees.”
  • The average human loses about 2 million skin cells an hour, fully clothed. “Flip your sheets into the air in the morning sunshine, and you’ll see the skin cells settling. The skin cells are literally covered with bacteria, and that’s the risk. The microbes move within a hospital even despite the fact that we have a tremendously good environmental services team keeping our hospitals spic and span. Yet the microbes move constantly.”
  • Why copper works so well in fighting hospital acquired infections is based on quantum mechanics.  “For the same reason we use copper wire to transmit electricity is the same reason copper kills bacteria. It literally steals the electricity inside the microbes, rendering them inactive. They literally die because they run out of juice.”




  Related Video

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Dr. Michael Schmidt explores the wonders of copper in fighting HAIs

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Resources >>

MUSC Department of Microbiology and Immunology

CDC Information on hospital-acquired infections


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