Science Questions

Does wearing copper reduce infection rates?

Mon, 18th Apr 2016

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Question

Tom Ettinger MD asked:

Hi from the great state of Washington. I have been listening for a few years and have a research project for you. You mentioned that some hospitals are using brass and copper to help prevent hospital aquirred infections. Does wearing a copper brass or silver bracelet reduce bad bacterial counts on my hands. I'm an Emergency Physician and wear a brass copper and silver bracelet. Are my patients safer? They often ask if it works, I tell my patients that I have not been abducted by aliens since I started wearing it.

 

Please tell those on your program when questions to not start the answer with the statement " that is a good question". This kills me. It is like fingernail on a blackboard (remember those). Of course it is a good question. The bad ones get left off the podcast.

 

Love the podcast.

 

Dr Tom

Answer

Kat Arney put this question to Chris Smith, Hereís a clip of the interview Tomís Sneezereferring to. This was an interview that Chris Did with professor Bill Keevil from the University of Southampton in February...

Bill - Copperís a very interesting metal.  Itís actually quite reactive and weíve found that with bacteria, it stops the bacteria respiring - so they stop breathing - it can punch holes in their cell membranes so that their constituents leak out, and it can destroy their DNA. We developed a model system where we simulated a hand touch onto a surface and put in several million MRSA onto those surfaces.  They started to die literally as soon as they touched the surface.

Chris - Your hypothesis then is that when the bugs are on that surface, the copper is producing all of these chemicals, the bugs find themselves in a really hostile environment and it just destroys them.

Bill - Absolutely correct.  And, in fact,iItís been very exciting that partly out of the lab work we started, people have been putting different copper alloys in hospitals all over the world and, in every case, theyíre reporting something like a 90% reduction in the number of bugs you can actually detect on the copper surfaces.  And whatís really exciting - a study was undertaken -  two hospitals in New York, one in Charleston and there, looking at all the data, theyíre reporting a 58% reduction in infection rates.  So I think thatís a classic example of translation from the laboratory into the realworld setting.

Kat - Chris youíre a virologist, whatís going on, is wearing a metal bracelet like Tomís helping to cut down his infection risk?

Chris - The answer is, Iím sorry to say Tom, probably not for a number of reasons.  One - health control policies certainly in NHS hospitals in the UK dictate that youíre not allowed to wear wrist things like watches or bangles or bracelet, and youíre allowed one gold band on one finger, like your wedding ring. Now the reason for doing that is that if you put bits of jewellry and other stuff round your hands, it actually impairs your ability to wash your hands properly.  And the copper is really only toxic, it appears, when itís in close apposition to the bacteria.  In other words, the bacteria on that surface.  Thereís not enough copper, although your arm very often does go that attractive shade of green if you wear one of these things.  Thereís not enough copper probably leaking onto the skin to make much difference to your microbial burden and you, therefore,  probably will just succumb to poorer washing and hand hygiene than if you donít wear the bangle. So the best advice is probably not to wear it and just wash your hands really well.

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