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Feb. 19, 2014

Copper's Antimicrobial Campaign Sees Slow Progress

Copper's benefits have long been known in the industrial and commercial world, from its distinctive look to its durability to its conductivity. But the most recently discovered trait, its natural ability to kill harmful bacteria, may prove to be its most important attribute.

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered copper for its antimicrobial properties after several years of testing. The registration notes that copper can kill bacteria upon its application and throughout the life of the product, a claim no other metal can make. Within 90 minutes of contamination, a copper surface will eliminate 99.9 percent of the bacteria that comes in contact, some of which can live for years on other surfaces.

Turning that characteristic into business activity has been much trickier than copper executives had hoped. Peter Gude, business development director for Olin Brass, Louisville, detailed his company's efforts to grow the market for its bacteria-killing material at a recent event of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Women in the Metal Industries. He said leading his company’s campaign is "the most exciting thing I’ve done in 35 years in the metals industry."

He also acknowledged that convincing potential customers to install the red metal "has not taken off as fast as we'd like." Still, progress continues to be made, both by his company and its CuVerro brand, and by other players in the industry.

The copper community has targeted the healthcare market for its initial efforts, with limited but varied success. Hospitals have begun to turn to copper products for use in IV poles, bed rails and overbed tray tables, among other frequently touched surfaces. Light fixtures, door handles and elevator face plates are other types of applications ripe for copper's properties.

Gude believes that a persistent campaign will ultimately pan out with healthcare facilities, including hospitals, out-patient clinics and nursing homes. "The hospital market is ROI driven. It's evidence-based design driven. If copper proves itself in the hospital market, then we can move into other spaces."

Beyond the healthcare sphere, public and private amenities that see large amounts of pedestrian traffic, such as health clubs, shopping mall escalators and public restroom facilities, are also target markets. To cite one example, Olin Brass will provide copper to a manufacturer in South America for use in overhead and vertical hand rails on up to 50 Chilean trains. Though other countries are not bound by the requirements of the EPA, the agency’s standing around the world works to the copper industry’s benefit, Gude says.

Copper's price is a major challenge to the industry's effort to promote its health benefits versus other traditional materials. Cost-conscious hospital administrators may not see, or be around for, the long-term benefits of a copper installation. Moreover, the strict guidelines required by the EPA prevent companies such as Olin Brass from making the case for their materials by citing the medical costs associated with an infection.

Copper's tendency to tarnish can also be an issue in exposed settings, which is why Olin Brass is marketing its nickel-copper alloy products in the campaign. Any material that contains at least 60 percent copper has the necessary antimicrobial attributes.

Another more recent challenge is some consumer confusion over the term antimicrobial. A marketing campaign for a glass cover for cell phones and tablets has touted its product’s antimicrobial benefits. But a deeper look, the kind consumers often don't make, reveals the glass covering only protects the product from bacteria and other microorganisms, not the user. The product, Gude says, "may make no public health benefit claims." But there’s little defense against the public making a public-health inference, he concedes.

Copper, in contrast, is truly and singularly effective, wiping out even the heartiest and deadliest of superbug bacteria such as MRSA, E. coli and staph, effectively and repeatedly throughout the life of the product.

The Copper Development Association has spent the past 10 years working to document and promote the material’s antimicrobial properties, so it's not deterred by the longer timeline toward widespread acceptance. "This is a worldwide project. One institution may want 200 IV poles, while another may change out all the door hardware using antimicrobial copper. We see some trends that are catching on," says Jim Michel, manager of technical services for CDA.

Michel will direct a CBSA webinar on the many uses of copper on March 27. For more information, visit www.copper-brass.org/webinars.cfml.

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