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If Copper Kills COVID, It’s Time for a Steampunk Renaissance

Copper obliterates a number of bacteria and viruses upon contact — so why aren’t we using it for everything?

There’s an extremophilic bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans that’s known to be “exceptionally resistant to ionizing radiation.” It’s kinda like a cockroach, in that, this bacterium would likely survive a nuclear blast. But if you drop that same bacterium on a copper surface, it’ll quickly be killed through contact. The same thing would happen if you had some E. coli and swabbed it across a copper surface.

Similarly, when drops of COVID-19 land on copper, the virus is rendered neutralized in roughly four hours. Compared to the three days it can last on stainless steel, copper practically kills COVID-19 on contact. That’s why, back in 2008, the EPA deemed copper the only natural antimicrobial surface. It’s essentially the all-natural Clorox bleach wipes of metals. 

Looking around the world right about now, you may be thinking: Wait, there’s a very common metal that almost immediately kills viruses — isn’t that something we should use everywhere that people congregate? 

Why, yes, yes we should.

The next question is equally obvious: Should our future be steampunk? 

Another obvious yes. 

If you don’t know what steampunk is, think brass and steam, elaborate blown glass and handcrafted copper from the days when Jules Verne first invented science fiction with his dreamy adventures to the center of the Earth. It’s a catchall that traces back to the Victoriana of those days and an optimistic time when people believed we could live better through the application of science and sensible invention. These days, however, all that optimism and faith in science has mostly been reduced to aesthetic and Burning Man cosplay.

Except for in India. In the mid-aughts, Rob Reed, a microbiologist, was doing research there when he noticed that the locals always used brass containers to carry and store their water. This seemed curious to him. So he asked them why they did so. The villagers explained that water kept in brass never gave them dysentery or diarrhea. Being a researcher, Reed got some brass containers himself, filled them with water, dropped in some E. coli and waited to see what happened. Forty-eight hours later, there was no detectable bacteria in the water. Western science had confirmed what the Indian villagers had already long-known — copper kills waterborne illnesses (in India, this has been common knowledge since before Alexander invaded in ancient times). 

The old-school Egyptians also knew about the antimicrobial powers of copper — using copper metal shavings to disinfect open chest wounds of soldiers and storing drinking water in copper vessels (since they too knew copper could protect them from the runs). 

However, it wasn’t until recently that the rest of us finally began to get a good grasp of how copper’s ionic action can obliterate the RNA of a bacteria or virus within minutes, denying it even the chance to mutate. 

In particular, in 1983, Phyllis Kuhn published a paper based on observations that in hospitals with brass and bronze door knobs, the copper alloys offered a surprising amount of antimicrobial protection. “Brass doorknob cultures showed sparse streptococcal and staphylococcal growth; stainless steel doorknob cultures showed heavy growth of Gram-positive organisms and an array of Gram-negative organisms, including Proteus species,” she concluded. 

In short, stainless steel might look clean, but it isn’t nearly as pristine as copper, brass or bronze, even though they often develop a greenish patina from wear. (Beyond copper’s bacteria-murdering ways, this is also because stainless steel can be easily scratched, and bacteria can fester down in those microscopic scratches.)

Still, it would be another two and a half decades before Kuhn’s findings would become mainstream, when in 2008, the EPA widely recommended copper: “When cleaned regularly, antimicrobial copper alloys surfaces kill greater than 99.9 percent of (specific) bacteria within two hours, and continue to kill more than 99 percent of (these) bacteria even after repeated contamination.” (Copper can most notably eradicate MRSA, which is an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that’s the scourge of the health-care industry, since it’s annually responsible for 120,000 hospital-acquired infections — roughly 20,000 of which are fatal.)

The toxic action of copper is a loosely understood chain of events, but according to the latest research, it kills on contact through an aggressive series of chemical interactions. It begins with membrane damage. Then an influx of copper ions rush into a cell through oxidation. This leads to the swift accumulation of oxidative damage that ultimately leads to cell death. 

But wait, there’s more: It also degrades the cell’s DNA or RNA, disallowing the viruses and bacteria to mutate. 

Yep, total cell death. 

So why don’t we copper-plate all of our hospitals and highly trafficked public places with nature’s antimicrobial wonder metal? 

Well, for one, doctors and hospital administrators often don’t know that copper is a straight-up virus killer. Which means they don’t think/push to use it. Secondly, copper is more expensive than stainless steel and other metals. 

To that first concern, though, proponents are doing their best to spread the good word. Case in point: Over in the U.K., researchers switched out the metal plates at a Birmingham hospital, replacing the high-traffic metal surfaces with copper. After their 10-week study concluded, they found that the “median numbers of bacteria recovered from surfaces of copper-containing items were between 90 percent and 100 percent lower than those from control surfaces.”   

In South Africa, researchers conducted a similar trial. They replaced surfaces in a medical ward, introducing copper sheets to cover window sills, cupboards, carts and desks. Over the course of six months, they determined that there was “a 71 percent reduction in the bacterial load of the copper surfaces” when “compared to that of the control surfaces.”

As such, the EPA has released lists of more than 300 copper products we can use as industrial-scale antimicrobial protection. It also suggests copper-based pesticides.

Of course, there’s still that added cost. The argument can be made, though, that copper pays for itself within months, due to the cost of the lives saved from hospital-borne infections, as well as the cost of possible lawsuits.

So let’s be smart about this and make the future steampunk once more.

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