Fantasilandia in Chile, one of Latin America’s largest theme parks, has replaced its most frequently touched surfaces with copper to help reduce the spread of germs and protect the health of its visitors. But why? Because copper and its alloys exhibit impressive antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties.
Copper has been exploited for health purposes since ancient times. Egyptian and Babylonian soldiers would sharpen their bronze swords (an alloy of copper and tin) after a battle, and place the filings in their wounds to reduce infection and speed healing.
Copper was also used to cure medical problems in ancient China and India and is an important component of Ayurveda medicine today. Hippocrates in Greece and the Aztecs used copper oxide and copper carbonate, combined with other chemicals such as sodium carbonate, olive paste and honey, to treat skin infections Copper workers in Paris were protected from several cholera epidemics and French wineries even applied copper sulphate and slaked lime, called Bordeaux mixture, to vines to prevent fungal attack.
Copper is amazing
But only now does our research describe how copper and its alloys exhibit these impressive properties and the processes involved. The process involves the release of copper ions (electrically charged particles) when microbes, transferred by touching, sneezing or vomiting, land on the copper surface. The ions prevent cell respiration, punch holes in the bacterial cell membrane or disrupt the viral coat, and destroy the DNA and RNA inside.
This latter property is important as it means that no mutation can occur – preventing the microbe from developing resistance to copper. Global concern is growing over antimicrobial resistance and the risk of death that it presents from common infections in even minor operations. Therefore, it is fortunate that copper alloys kill superbugs, including MRSA and those from the notorious ESKAPE group of pathogens – the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections.