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Uses of Antimicrobial Metals in the Health Field

Published : 2014-12-19 - Updated : 2017-06-01
Author : Thomas C. Weiss - Contact: Disabled World

Synopsis* : There are currently hundreds of antimicrobial copper healthcare-related products available in America today.

Main Digest

Metals such as silver, copper, arsenic and mercury have been used in different forms as antimicrobials for thousands of years. Until recently, little has been understood about their mode of action. The discovery of antibiotics and new organic antimicrobial compounds during the 20th century found a general decline in the clinical use of antimicrobial metal compounds, with the exception of the rediscovery of the use of silver for treatment of burns and niche uses for other metal compounds.

An agent that kills microorganisms or inhibits their growth. Antimicrobial medicines can be grouped according to the microorganisms they act primarily against. For example, antibacterials are used against bacteria and anti-fungals are used against fungi. They can also be classified according to their function. Agents that kill microbes are called microbicidal, while those that merely inhibit their growth are called microbiostatic. A wide range of chemical and natural compounds are used as antimicrobials. Organic acids are used widely as antimicrobials in food products, e.g. lactic acid, citric acid, acetic acid, and their salts, either as ingredients, or as disinfectants.

Antibiotics and new antimicrobials were regarded as being safer for people and more effective than the metal-based compounds they replaced. Bacterial metal ion resistances were first discovered in the second half of the 20th century. The detailed mechanisms of resistance have now been characterized in a wide range of bacteria. As the use of antimicrobial metals is limited, it is legitimate to ask if antimicrobial metal resistances in pathogenic commensal bacteria are now important.

Silver's Antimicrobial Properties

The antimicrobial properties of silver have been known to cultures around the world for centuries. The Phoenicians stored water and other fluids in silver coated bottles to discourage contamination by microbes. Silver dollars used to be placed in milk bottles to keep the milk fresh and water tanks of airplanes and ship that are, 'silvered,' have the ability to render water potable for months at a time. In the year 1884, it became a common practice to administer drops of aqueous silver nitrate to a newborn's eyes in order to prevent the transmission of, 'Neisseria gonorrhea,' from infected mothers to children during childbirth.

In the year 1893, the antibacterial effectiveness of different metals were noted and the property was named, 'oligodynamic effect.' It was later found that out of all the metals with antimicrobial properties, silver was the most effective antibacterial action and the least toxic to animal cells. Silver became commonly used in medical treatments, such as those of wounded soldiers in World War I, to deter microbial growth.

Following the discovery of antibiotics, the use of silver as a bacterial agent decreased. With the discovery of antibiotics; however, came the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains such as CA-MRSA and HA-MRSA, the flesh-eating bacteria. Due to the increasing antibiotic resistance, there has recently been a renewed interest in using silver as an antibacterial agent. The availability of new laboratory technologies such as radioactive isotopes and electron microscopy has enabled people to investigate the antibacterial mechanism of silver recently.

Antimicrobial Copper

New research has revealed that the use of antimicrobial copper surfaces in hospital rooms can reduce the number of healthcare-acquired infections by 58% when compared to people treated in intensive care units with non-copper touch surfaces. In the United States of America, 1 out of every 20 people in a hospital develops a hospital-acquired infection, resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths every year. While a number of strategies have been developed to decrease these infections, antimicrobial copper is the only strategy that works on a continual basis, has been scientifically proven to be effective and does not depend on human behavior, according to a study recently published in the SHEA Journal of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Dr. Harold Michels, Senior Vice President of the Copper Development Association (CDA) stated, "The implications of this study are critical. Until now, the only attempts to reduce HAIs have required hand hygiene, increased cleaning and patient screening, which don't necessarily stop the growth of these bacteria the way copper alloy surfaces do. We now know that copper is the game-changer: it has the potential to save lives."

Intensive Care Units and Copper Alloys

A study, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, was conducted in the intensive care units (ICU's) of 3 major hospitals; The Medical University of South Carolina, the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs medical Center of South Carolina, as well s the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. To determine the impact of copper allow surfaces on the rate of healthcare acquired infections, copper-surfaced objects were placed in each ICU where people are at increased risk due to the severity of their illnesses, invasive procedures, as well as frequent interactions with healthcare workers. People were randomly placed in available rooms with or without copper alloy surfaces and the rates of healthcare-acquired infections were compared. A total of 650 people and 16 rooms were studied between July 12th of 2010 and June 14th of 2011.

The results of this study, which appeared in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, found that antimicrobial copper can continuously kill 83% of bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections within 2 hours, to include strands resistant to antibiotics. The study compared copper to equivalent non-copper touch surfaces during active care of people between routine cleaning and sanitizing.

Dr. Michael Schmidt, the Vice Chairman of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina and an author of the study stated, "Copper alloy surfaces offer an alternative way to reduce the increasing number of HAIs, without having to worry about changing healthcare worker behavior. Because the antimicrobial effect is a continuous property of copper, the regrowth of deadly bacteria is significantly less on these surfaces, making a safer environment for hospital patients."

In the results of the study, 46 people developed a hospital-acquired infection, while 26 people became colonized with MRSA or a VRE. Overall, the proportion of people who developed a hospital-acquired infection was significantly lower among people assigned to intensive care rooms with objects made with copper alloys. There are currently hundreds of antimicrobial copper healthcare-related products available in America today such as stretchers, IV poles, door hardware and tray tables.

About the Author

Thomas C. Weiss attended college and university courses earning a Masters, Bachelors and two Associate degrees, as well as pursing Disability Studies. As a Nursing Assistant Thomas has assisted people from a variety of racial, religious, gender, class, and age groups by providing care for people with all forms of disabilities from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson's; para and quadriplegia to Spina Bifida.

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Cite Page: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English (U.S.). Author: Thomas C. Weiss. Electronic Publication Date: 2014-12-19 - Revised: 2017-06-01. Title: Uses of Antimicrobial Metals in the Health Field, Source: <a href=>Uses of Antimicrobial Metals in the Health Field</a>. Retrieved 2021-06-13, from - Reference: DW#48-11013.