It's a lean, green, killing machine-except when it hasn't
oxidized, in which case it's a lean, red, killing machine.
Copper, the common element routinely used in the production
of plumbing systems and electrical wiring, is a proven
antimicrobial agent. Tarnished or not, copper, brass and bronze
surfaces have been shown to kill most harmful bacteria-from
antibiotic-resistant superbug staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to
the food-poisoning E. coli strains-within hours of contact.
Scientists don't know exactly why uncoated copper and copper
alloys have germ-fighting superpowers, but with the fear of a
global pandemic following this summer's swine flu outbreak,
they don't care as long as it works.
Copper's bacteria-blasting properties are as inherent to the
metal as thermal and electrical conductivity and have been
used, though not always understood, by humans since ancient
times. Ancient Egyptians used copper vessels to sterilize
drinking water, according to the New York-based Copper
Development Association (CDA), while healers throughout the
ages have recommended the red metal in treatments to cure
everything from intestinal worms to varicose veins.
But while copper's antimicrobial properties have been
employed in health care for centuries, only in recent times
have copper producers got the go-ahead to tout the metal's
germ-busting nature. In March 2008, following extensive testing
of 3,000 copper alloy samples, the federal Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) declared copper alloys an antimicrobial
agent, a classification once granted only to liquids, gases and
aerosols used as sanitizers and disinfectants. In the year and
a half since then, copper users coast to coast have filed
"me-too" registrations with the EPA to have their products
declared antimicrobial, while scientists have bustled to
confirm the efficacy of copper in various germ-filled
The buzz around antimicrobial copper is louder than ever,
but with research on the topic still relatively young, players
in the copper industry can't help but wonder What does all this
mean for future copper demand?
A lot, according to copper producers around the world. For a
metal that has mostly been losing market share in recent years
to cheaper and lighter-weight aluminum and plastic, the
possibility for new applications is nothing short of
"This new application for copper products has the potential
to have a material positive impact on copper demand in the
future," said a spokeswoman from Xstrata Copper. "It remains
too early to speculate on the long-term impact of this
discovery, although it has the potential to be
Carmen Tardito, director of market strategy and development
at state-owned Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile
(Codelco), agreed that the implications for copper usage could
be staggering. "Early predictions indicate that a market for
antibacterial copper applications in hospitals and health
centers in the United States could potentially reach 300,000
tons a year at peak consumption, a figure that could reach 3
million tons a year at peak consumption worldwide," she
Global copper consumption totaled 18 million tonnes last
year, according to preliminary data from the International
Copper Study Group, so by Tardito's calculations the growth of
antimicrobial applications for copper could expand global
copper demand by around 16 percent.
With so much potential growth at stake, producers are
working to stay well informed of developments in the field.
Among the ranks of CDA members are Rio Tinto subsidiary
Kennecott Utah Copper Corp., Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold
Inc., BHP Billiton, Codelco and Xstrata. In fact, Charlie
Sartain, Xstrata's chief executive officer, is currently vice
chairman of the CDA's affiliate organization, the International
Copper Association (ICA) and ICA's Board will vote to elect
Sartain chairman in October.
Yet despite their interest in new developments, as long as
the movement remains in the early stages many miners are unsure
what to expect from this relatively new application.
"Since we don't produce any 'final' product to be used in an
antimicrobial environment, the impact to Kennecott will be at
least one step removed, maybe two steps removed, so it is hard
to predict," a Kennecott spokeswoman said. "(This) will likely
not create an immediate or dramatic increase in demand.
However, we do hope for that to grow over time as there are
true public health benefits."
The Xstrata spokeswoman agreed. "Given the relative recency
of these studies, it is too early to say how large the impact
is likely to be as this will depend on how exactly copper is
applied as well as the extent of uptake globally," she said,
noting that some of the demand will depend on whether
fabricators choose to use solid copper in new applications or
simply apply a thin copper coating over cheaper materials to
take advantage of the same antimicrobial effect.
But no matter what the outcome might be, producers say they
are excited to see their market grow-and contribute to human
health to boot.
"As a result of the swine flu pandemic, it has been stressed
extensively in the mass media the need to rigorously wash one's
hands, since touching contaminated surfaces is one of the main
ways micro-organisms are transported," Tardito said. "The use
of copper on contact surfaces such as hand railings, arm rests,
faucets, light switches, chairs, etc., in places of high human
concentration would undoubtedly help significantly reduce the
spread of pathogenic micro-organisms and, hence, slow the
spread of illness."
Kettering agreed. "We do hope for (this application) to grow
over time, as there are true public health benefits."