Copper alloys, traditionally used in hospitals to help fight health-care acquired infections, aren’t as prevalent in non-traditional spaces where germs also spread.
While it’s been determined that antibacterial properties of copper metals kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria within two hours when installed on high-touch surfaces, there isn’t as much uptake in facilities like athletic centres or trendy mixed-use developments that add fitness areas.
Commercial use, however, has been on the upswing ever since Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered copper—the only solid antimicrobial touch surface to be approved by both agencies. This use is administered somewhat in healthcare facilities to bed rails, toilets, computer devices and IV stands. The goal is to reduce the spread of superbugs like Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is increasingly seen in non-clinical settings, as well.
According to David Anonychuk, former president of the Canadian Copper Association and currently managing director of Aereus Technologies, a copper alloy manufacturer, incorporating copper into facility renovations could be one way of controlling the spread of harmful pathogens.
“Hospitals are more mandated and regimented in terms of cleaning protocols,” he notes. “In a fitness centre, everyone is moving in and out, sweating, coughing, using equipment. There is great opportunity, where there is a high turnover of people, to add copper in the background.”
More researchers are starting to analyze community environments where viruses thrive. A recent study out of Iowa’s Grinnell College in the U.S. found that copper alloy surfaces can enhance infection control and potentially reduce community-acquired infections in fitness centres.
The 16-month-long study examined the ability of copper alloy surfaces to lower bacterial burden associated with high-touch athletic centre equipment, such as weights and grips. Staphylococcus was the most common bacteria found in the facility, and results showed an 85 to 97 per cent reduction in bacteria on all equipment.
“In a fitness centre, the only chance you get to reduce bacteria is the next time someone cleans the surface,” says Anonychuk. “Copper immediately goes to work, reducing and maintaining a low bacteria count. It’s an enhancement, not a replacement for cleaning.”
There’s been extensive research on MRSA (a Staphylococcus species) in hospital settings, but a lack of research analyzing the prevalence of MRSA on surfaces in athletic centres.
To get an idea of how many germs people encounter in fitness centres, fitness equipment review site FitRated.com recently gathered samples from 27 pieces of equipment from three different gym chains in the U.S.
Treadmills were found to have an average of more than 1.3 million colony-forming units per square inch, 74 times more bacteria than a typical public bathroom faucet. Exercise bikes and free weights also harbour more bacteria than cafeteria trays and toilet seats.
All three types of equipment yielded gram-positive cocci (a common cause of skin infections and other illnesses), gram-negative rods (which can prompt many types of infections and sometimes resist antibiotics) and gram-positive rods (which can – but don’t often – cause various types of infections. The exercise bikes and free weight samples also turned up Bacillus – a potential cause of various conditions, including ear, eye and respiratory infections.
In spaces outside of healthcare, copper has a different utility. Companies who want to be leading edge and accommodate clientele in an innovative way are incorporating copper surfaces into renovation projects, Anonychuk notes. The Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga, Ont. is one early adopter. Aereus Technologies added 1,000 copper alloy pieces to its locker room renovation in 2007.
Copper alloy surfaces are also believed to address some operational and health concerns when combined with effective cleaning regimes. They offer a passive and continuous way to reduce and control bacteria in facilities with a dearth of cleaning staff. They also provide greener solutions with no chemicals because they are all natural, and work well in a wide temperature range.
When bacteria lands on a copper surface, copper ions puncture the bacterial cell membrane, prevent cell respiration and destroy the cell.
“Thinking about the advent of superbugs, it also kills the DNA,” says Anonychuk. “If you can’t replicate the cell, then you’ve stopped any chance of reproducing or mutation occurring. That bacteria is permanently dead.”
According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is increasing globally. While copper alloys have been used for health purposes since ancient times, only now does research delve into its antimicrobial properties.
“Pathogens have been around forever,” says Anonychuk. “Having something as simple as copper on touch surfaces is one other weapon.”