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Copper's germ-killing potential might open door to new marts

April 15, 2005
Source: American Metal Market
By Philip Burgert, KEY LARGO, Fla.

Copper producers, re-rollers and service centers are eyeing the growth prospects for a new category of products that make use of the metal's potential anti-microbial properties in a variety of health and germ-fighting applications.

"The sky is the limit," said Michael Jemison, president and chief executive officer of re-roller Heyco Metals Inc., Reading, Pa., which has seen much of its electronics market business move to Asia since 2000. "In the years I've been in the business since 1979, I haven't seen the market potential that great for something completely new and different and yet fitting into existing demand."

The enthusiasm expressed by Jemison and others at the Copper & Brass Servicenter Association's annual meeting in Key Largo was a result of recent efforts by the Copper Development Association (CDA) to prove the anti-microbial properties of copper, which could position the metal advantageously in health care, ventilation and food service markets.

Harold T. Michels, vice president of technical and information services at New York-based CDA, said research supports the position that copper could play a significant role in fighting infections that affect 2 million people in U.S. hospitals each year, resulting in 90,000 deaths and costing $5 billion annually as resistance to antibiotics increases.

"These trends are not getting any better," Michels said. "One of the most serious of these infections is a so-called superbug called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)."

Studies ordered by the CDA and presented at the American Society for Microbiology last year compared dry copper alloy surfaces at room temperature with 304 stainless steel. "We put MRSA on them and saw how long they lived," Michels said. On nearly pure C197 copper, the microbes disappeared within 90 minutes, less-pure copper alloys took longer--about 270 minutes for C240 brass--while little decline was seen in the number of microbes on the stainless steel.

Before marketing copper alloys with anti-microbial claims, the industry first will have to get them certified under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), Michels said.

During the past two weeks, the CDA submitted protocols to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for rigorous tests requiring 6,000 specimens. It expects to hear back from the agency on the testing by June.

"The prospects look good. I think we will get EPA approval," Michels said. "It's going to take a while. After we have our test protocol approved and we run our tests, they have 270 days under law to respond to us. In the meantime, we have to talk about parts that will be made."

The CDA already has begun to talk with building hardware manufacturers about launching products made of copper that would take advantage of the approval. "FIFRA registration will allow us to promote the anti-microbial properties of copper alloys as protective of human health," Michels said.

One of the initial areas CDA has identified for the effort is in-door hardware, such as push plates, handles and other touch surfaces. "We're not saying copper is the answer. We're saying that where hygienic practices are important, copper alloys can help," Michels said. "The anti-microbial properties of copper alloys (are) always there and always active. In comparison to coatings which are being marketed for anti-microbial properties, they will not wear away, they will not be damaged. Copper alloys should be considered because of their advantage in protecting human health."

Beyond door hardware in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes and physicians' offices, the CDA is looking at other potential anti-microbial areas for copper that include schools, public buildings, office buildings, transportation and shopping malls. "Let your imagination run wild," Michels said.

Efforts at replacing aluminum and other metals with copper in heating and air-conditioning systems in hospitals, office buildings, commercial aircraft, supermarkets and restaurants also are being planned, he said. A third marketing effort will involve food contact surfaces, such as countertops, food carts, trays, meat packing, commercial kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets and food distribution trucks.

Andrew G. Kireta Sr., president and chief executive officer of the CDA, said the trade group had success in the past month in finding a Defense Department sponsor for a $15.8-million congressional appropriation to do the testing for anti-microbial and air-quality program certifications.

"We're happy with that and there may be another one on the way," Kireta said, noting that he had assured the sponsor that the copper industry could meet the potential demand. "We're a very underutilized industry. When do you want the first truck?"

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