Hospitals slammed for shunning bug-busting copper surfaces

Microbiologist claims estates managers are putting cost and aesthetics before the health of patients

Hospital estates and facilities managers are putting aesthetics and cost before the safety of patients when it comes to specifying fixtures and fittings, one of the UK’s leading microbiologists has claimed.

Speaking at Infection Prevention 2013 in London this week, Tom Elliott, consultant microbiologist and deputy medical director at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, said all new and replacement touch surfaces in hospitals should be made from copper or copper alloys, all of which have been proven to stop the spread of harmful bacteria.

He asked: “Who in our hospitals is deciding that we should use stainless steel or plastic or aluminium, rather than copper? Who is selecting these when we know there are naturally-occurring metals that have this intrinsic antimicrobial activity? Is it just because they are shiny? “Are we letting plumbers decide on the type of taps we use? And, if so, why aren’t infection prevention people in on this debate?”

I wonder why we need to be convinced to use antimicrobial copper surfaces when we are being convinced to use surfaces that do not have antimicrobial benefits like stainless steel, plastic and aluminium

He said the scientific evidence was now overwhelming to prove that copper surfaces can have a positive effect on the growth of bacteria and other pathogens.

“There appears to be a quantifiable link between contamination of the built environment and the risk of infections such as MRSA and C.difficile,” he added.

“As well as washing our hands and using surface disinfectants, we have got to be thinking about the environment.

“Study results demonstrate the potential of copper to significantly reduce the number of micro-organisms both in vitro and in the clinical environment, and the incorporation of copper into essential items in hospitals may offer a unique solution to controlling and limiting healthcare associated infections (HCAIs) in a cost-effective manner.

“Regular cleaning does not reduce the bioburden, but copper works 24/7 for years and never loses activity, even with biofilms and proteins present.

“I wonder why we need to be convinced to use antimicrobial copper surfaces when we are being convinced to use surfaces that do not have antimicrobial benefits like stainless steel, plastic and aluminium.”

On the issue of finance he said that cost analysis studies in Nightingale wards in hospitals in Birmingham revealed that only 1.5 infections needed to be avoided before the investment had paid for itself.

“Once you have covered the cost of the procurement, then you have these products to continue to give protection against infection for years to come,” he said.

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Elliott spoke out after leading a trial which involved introducing replacement copper surfaces on hospital wards, including toilet seats and taps.

He said: “We didn’t tell staff and patients; we just put them there. Some people didn’t like to see brown toilet seats and as they started to look more tarnished, the cleaning staff did try to buff them up, but we told them not to. Copper is still effective even when tarnished and does not stop killing germs.

“We did have to explain to staff and patients, but when we shared the results they all wanted to use copper items.”

But he admitted more evidence was needed.

“Further studies need to be carried out to look at the impact of specific infections,” he said. “We also need to further explore the link to patient outcomes.”

And he called for manufacturers to take the lead, adding: “Why are they still coating brass fittings in chrome when I want them in copper?”

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