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Perhaps the most compelling image of hope in the battle against future pandemics is something you used to see everywhere — copper fixtures in kitchens and bathrooms, copper water lines, copper in buildings, and copper power networks.
Copper can drastically decrease the spread of infections. When influenzas, bacteria such as E.coli, or even coronaviruses land on most hard surfaces, they can live for up to four or five days. But, when they land on copper and copper alloys such as brass or copper nickel, they begin to die within minutes and are undetectable within hours. Copper degrades viruses.
We would be in much better shape now if the antimicrobial properties of copper and copper alloys had been more widely recognized years ago and not pushed out of many applications by a wave of new materials: stainless steel, tempered glass, aluminum, and plastics. Brass doorknobs in hospitals and public spaces went out of style a long time ago.
So, why not bring them back? While it’s too late to stop COVID-19, it’s not too early to think about the next pandemic. Greater use of copper and copper alloys in a wide variety of applications (hospital beds, guest-chair armrests, and even IV stands) would significantly reduce infections from viruses and save lives.
A 2015 study compared infection rates at three hospitals and found that when copper alloys were used at the hospitals, infection rates were reduced by 58%. Another study in 2016 inside a pediatric intensive care unit showed a similar result.
The sticker shock for copper comes right at the start. Copper is more expensive than aluminum or plastic and pricier than steel. But to state that using aluminum, plastic, or stainless steel for hospital fixtures saves money is to state the exact opposite of the truth. Hospitalborne infections are costing our healthcare system as much as $45 billion a year, not to mention killing as many as 90,000 people. The cost of upgrading hospital fixtures is negligible by comparison.
The path forward could begin with hospitals, businesses, and people generally realizing that the scale of the coronavirus challenge is so vast that inappropriate cost-cutting distracts rational discussion about health safety. With the pandemic, the game has changed.
We need to stop fretting about obsessions with cost. Costs are relative rather than absolute, which means they involve trade-offs and risk balancing. We should be open to expanding the use of copper as one potential tool in the effort to safeguard public health. Considered in lives saved, copper has significant advantages over its competitors. Substituting virus-killing copper for other materials would produce obvious improvements in public health. It would be a wise investment that health authorities should start seriously considering to combat future pandemics.
Mark J. Perry (@Mark_J_Perry) is a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Over 100 Years Experience – Manufacturers of Bronze Bearings, Bushings, and Continuous Cast Bars Since 1913