If a large passenger plane crashed every day, would you risk taking a flight? It's estimated that's how many people on average die every day from contracting an antibiotic resistant infection, a superbug, from a hospital stay.

According to the archeological evidence to date, the first peoples to have entered the Copper Age, otherwise known as the Chalcolithic, lived nearly 8,000 years ago on Rudnik mountain in Serbia. Among dozens of later worldwide sites, Egypt stands out, as does precolumbian Mesoamerican civilizations, where tin was soon added to the copper to produce bronze. And based purely on the most intelligent guesses from anthropological evidence, it was likely always a woman who accidentally discovered how to smelt copper, since women had responsibility for the hearth in most of those cultures. If she put a crystalline green rock, malachite, in or around the campfire, especially if it were to make pottery, it would produce a really cool-looking green flame to everyone's amazement, and in the morning she would find a hard black substance remaining, copper-oxide. If later on, that blackish material were to be cooked in the hotter charcoal remains of a campfire, the carbon would bind with the oxygen in the ore and escape into the atmosphere as CO2, leaving behind pure copper. And all this because of the fusion that occurred within a neutron star explosion billions of years before the formation of our solar system.

Over the millenniums, copper has been used medicinally, both as primitive surgical tools and as applications directly on wounds. Much of that was based on the anecdotal evidence that infections tended to heal quickly if copper was involved. That grew closer to empirical evidence in 19th century Europe, with the fifth and sixth Cholera (bacterium Vibrio cholerae) pandemics, when it was noticed that workers at copper smelting factories tended to be "immune."

And as medical science marched towards the end of the 20th century, when we could look microscopically at bacteria and its DNA, the mystery was solved. If you put bacteria, vira, or fungi on a piece of copper, you effectively kill it. You kill it because when bacteria and vira, for example, touch copper, electrically charged copper ions are released which "prevent cell respiration, punch holes in the bacterial cell membrane or disrupt the viral coat, and destroy the DNA and RNA inside."

So here's to that woman long ago who first discovered copper.

So why aren't hospitals using it more as part of a strategy to save lives? Because we are still a bit stupid as a species.

The Conversation:  “Hospitals may perceive hand-gel dispensers as cheaper options, despite the fact that these gels do not all kill all microbes – including the norovirus. Yet an independent study by University of York’s Health Economics Consortium has shown that, taking the reduced costs of shorter patient stay and treatment into consideration, the payback time for installing copper fittings is only two months.

Making and installing copper fittings is no more expensive than using materials such as stainless steel which, ironically, is considered easier to keep clean due to its bright surface. However, we know that these are covered in microscopic indentations and scratches from regular wear and tear, leaving valleys for superbugs and viruses to reside in and escape cleaning procedures. Cleaning happens at best once a day, while copper works 24/7 – so it is surely an important adjunct in the fight to keep the built environment clean.

The importance of installing copper fittings has been recognised in France where various hospitals are now installing copper. Finally, at least some nations of the world are waking up to this simple approach to control infection, let’s hope others are quick to follow suit.”

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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