In recent weeks, many companies have noticed a surge in interest for brass and copper products. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have been looking for ways to increase the level of hygiene in their homes.
The antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties of copper and copper alloys such as brass, which have been utilized for ages, have once again caught our attention.
If you are in the position to replace your current bathroom accessories with brass or copper, and you’re wondering about the meaningfulness of such a move, this article is here to help.
To help you stay safe and ease your mind, we have focused on credible scientific information that exists on antimicrobial properties of copper. Also, for those interested in installing brass or copper accessories at any point, we have included a brief history of their use, so you know that you are continuing a highly useful (and stylish) tradition whose roots can be found in the very dawn of civilization.
The history of copper use
The first metal ever to be used by humans is copper. It could be found in its original, metallic form which means no further treatment was needed. The innovation that melting brought meant that the range of possibilities for its use suddenly expanded.
Soon, its much sturdier alloy bronze was discovered, and the Bronze Age began. It changed the course of history forever, but what is less widely known is that its medicinal properties also didn’t pass unnoticed.
In one of the oldest preserved medical texts, the Egyptian Smith Papyrus, copper was mentioned as an important part of sterilization of chest wounds as well as drinking water. There are records of medicinal copper use in ancient China, India, Rome and Greece, as well as the Aztec civilization, mentioning that it had quite a wide range of applications, from skin diseases to anemia and syphilis.
In later times, one of the most famous accounts on the sanitizing properties of copper came from Victor Burq in 1852. He followed the outbreak of cholera in France and noticed that people who have worked with copper had less chance of being infected. He proved this to the French Academies of Science in Medicine in 1867. Since then, the medicinal use of copper has continued well into antibiotic age, where it was used less, but wasn’t forgotten.
Another interesting use of copper’s antimicrobial and antifungal properties was found in ship-building. A thin film of copper was applied to ships bottoms to prevent biofouling—the attachment of marine life onto objects immersed in water which has the potential to weaken the ship. It was so successful in the Royal Navy that the expression copper-bottomed entered the English language referring to something that was highly dependable.
Today, with the growing concern for antibiotic resistance in bacteria, copper has once again become a source of hope for preventing or reducing germ transmission in hospitals and highly frequented public areas. And with every new epidemic, people seem to become more acutely aware of the advantages of copper and brass.
The science behind it
Due to the “infodemic” that has unfortunately sent a lot of misinformation into circulation all over the Internet, we have decided to provide you with a thorough account of reliable scientific data on the antimicrobial properties of copper and brass. While we wait for cutting-edge solutions to be invented, tested, and used on a massive scale, it is important to see what we can do to protect ourselves and others.
(Example: Faucet, high-touch surfaces)
To understand how replacing a high-touch surface with one made of copper or brass, it is important to mention several things:
- The first is called contact killing, which refers to the proposed mechanism that makes copper or brass such an effective germ killer.
- The second one is microbial antibiotic resistance and healthcare-associated infections (HCAI), which are the two main drivers of copper antimicrobial research. Finally, we need to understand the mechanisms of germ transmission and rethink how we design surfaces that we frequently touch, and there is no need to mention the importance of this in the way we design our bathrooms.
When bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms come into contact with copper surfaces, the process of contact killing begins. Copper releases copper ions (electrically charged particles) which affects the structure of the microbe. In contact with viruses, the ions disrupt their coat and destroy the RNA and DNA inside the virus. When it comes to bacteria, they interfere with cell respiration and puncture the membrane of the cell. This means that microbes on copper surfaces cannot multiply or mutate.
Many viruses, such as influenza, mutate and change every season, and this is why vaccines need to be regularly updated. However, the effect of copper surfaces is not affected by the strand of the virus in question and the ions kill them all the same.
The process is enhanced as bacteria release hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with copper ions and creates extremely reactive oxygen, which causes further damage to surrounding microbes. Also, the fact that copper ions destroy the genes of these microbes means that horizontal transmission of genetic information between them becomes practically impossible.
The last part is crucial as it means that they cannot evolve to develop resistance to copper or brass, which is the burning issue with most modern antibiotics. That means that copper and brass are our key ally in humanity’s fight against current and any potential superbugs of the future.
According to the National Institutes for Health, scientists have found that Covid19 can be detected on most metals and plastic for up to three days (some studies have mentioned that its cousin viruses like SARS1 have survived even longer, depending on the condition). However, on copper surfaces, the virus disintegrates after about four hours.
This certainly doesn’t mean that anyone with brass and copper accessories should relax their hygiene measures and precautions. However, due to its properties, copper should be taken into consideration when it comes to designing surfaces that people touch on a daily basis.
(Example: High-touch surfaces)
(Example: Brass soap & lotion dispenser, high-touched surfaces)
The benefits of copper in fighting antibiotic resistance and transmission of germs
Healthcare facilities, nursing homes, veterinary clinics, bus stations and other places that involve a large number of people or animals at one location are unfortunately convenient places for superbugs to spawn and spread. Although it takes time for copper to kill the microbes, after prolonged exposure, copper is shown to kill practically all microorganisms that land on its surface.
Studies in healthcare environments have shown the effects of copper and its alloys in reducing the rates of healthcare-associated infection rates. When it was used on frequently touched surfaces such as bed rails, doorknobs, call buttons, bathroom faucets, Fixtures and others; these surfaces were found to hold up to 90% fewer microbes. Units that have replaced their fixtures with copper have reported a reduction in infections as significant as 58%, compared to control units that have followed the exact same cleaning routines.
(Example: Doorknobs, high-touch surfaces)
(Example: High-touch Surfaces, brass bathroom accessory sets)
Copper and brass has even been suggested as a way to improve water quality in developing countries. Brass Vessels & Sinks, Bath accessories sets and pipes have a long history, the reason for which has now been also supported by science. Copper-based solutions are not only efficient but also long-lasting and therefore economically more viable in the long run. In 2008, 274 different copper alloys were registered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as certified antimicrobial materials that have public health benefits.
The preventive potential of copper is what gives it such value in hospitals, bathrooms, public spaces, and homes around the world. Even as it reduces the risk of infection, it reduces the risk of a microbe evolving further into a more antibiotic - and even disinfectant - resistant bug.
By refreshing our knowledge about its amazing properties, we can make it more widely used, and in combination with good hygiene measures and regular disinfection of surfaces, we can make our environment a safer place.
Copper and brass accessories at home
We have covered the science and planning behind the rising popularity of copper and brass, and we have shown that it has immeasurable value in keeping our public spaces and hospitals safer. However, how meaningful is it to use it in our homes? The answer may differ from person to person, but it is important to take several factors into consideration.
Although we try to limit our exposure to high-touch surfaces in public, it is still quite likely to bring contaminants from the outside into our home. Even a single person whose bodily fluids contain viruses or bacteria can contaminate a surface spreading the illness to a large number of people.
The more frequently we touch something, the higher the risk of contamination becomes. Even when people refrain from touching anything outside, it is still hard to avoid it altogether. Moreover, the habit of touching our face is hard to shake off, especially because we mostly do it unconsciously.
Studies have shown that people touch their face around 16 times per hour, and half the time that involve touching parts of our face such as eyes, nose or mouth that are susceptible to viral transmission.
This also brings us to the issue of cleaning and disinfection. It is important to state that however much we clean and disinfect the high-touch surfaces in our home, it is impossible to be completely safe from transmission.
Cleaning is just reducing the risk, and it is hardly viable to spend most of our time nervously cleaning everything we touch. So, copper or brass accessories such as soap dispensers, bathroom faucets, trash cans, soap dish holders, toilet brush holders, and toilet paper holders, can help ease our minds a little bit.
Another factor is the fact that some parts of our home and bathroom accessories, cannot be always cleaned, as viruses can settle in micro cracks in hard to reach places. This is where copper and brass accessories shine: they are effective all though the surface and thus it is easier for them to become entirely germ-free. To sum up, with the same cleaning routine applied, copper and brass accessories are definitely the safer choice and make all the difference.
How to incorporate copper and brass accessories in your bathroom
Although the primary benefit of copper and brass accessories is their sanitizing effect, we will go through some other things that might be important in making the decision to install them or not. As bathroom accessories are a long-term investment, it is important to address any design concerns and talk about the durability of brass.
In recent years, other materials have been at the top of the list when it comes to popularity, especially in modern minimalist bathrooms. However, as the minimalist trends warm up and transitional bathrooms become more popular, brass and copper have become more and more appreciated as materials.
Brass accessories and brass fixtures provides the room with subtle warmth, simplicity, and a sense of connection to nature, which is exactly where the latest trends are headed. Therefore, it is easier than ever to find gorgeous vanities and other bathroom essentials that will work perfectly with brass.
What is most important, brass and copper do not lose their effectiveness over time. Therefore, it is an investment that can keep your bathroom stylish, but also much safer for years to come. This is one of those situations where carefully designed bathrooms are not only about appearances but also, through choosing the right accessory, you can help yourself and those around you live in a safer environment.
Photo: Björn Wallander
While we might worry about hygiene now more than usual, it is encouraging to know that nature has provided a solution that has helped humans stay healthy and clean for ages. Hopefully, the renewed attention that the antimicrobial properties of copper have received will mean that its use will only grow, both in public and private spaces.
Copper and brass are fascinating, as although medicine and technology have developed to an amazing level, bits of ancient knowledge like copper use can still be of great help to us.
Copper in ancient times: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3067274/
Metallic Copper as an antibacterial surface: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3067274/
Doorknobs by Phyllis Khun: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265158098_Doorknobs_A_Source_of_Nosocomial_Infection
Copper destroy MRSA at a touch: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-02/uos-cdm022316.php
Bill Keevil: https://theconversation.com/profiles/bill-keevil-339559 (edited)