New Tools in Germ Warfare: Copper and Ultraviolet Light

Blasting germs with beams of light or replacing surfaces with an electrically conductive metal may sound far-fetched, but these practices are becoming reality as hospitals search for more innovative ways to combat infection.

Although hospitals across the country have made great strides in infection control through evidence-based hand hygiene and disinfection techniques, hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) remain a significant problem. HAIs are the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., falling just behind heart disease, stroke, and cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 20 hospitalized patients in the U.S. will acquire an HAI. Nearly 100,000 lives are lost to these infections each year.

Following standard equipment cleaning and personal hygiene procedures may not be enough to curb the problem. Hospitals are still struggling with disinfecting shared surfaces in a busy environment, where many people may touch common surfaces. 

In hospital rooms, frequently touched surfaces—such as bed rails, call buttons, chairs, door handles, light switches, IV poles, and soap dispensers as well as keyboards and countertops at nursing stations—are often contaminated with high levels of bacteria. Sanitizing these frequently touched surfaces between each use is impractical and costly. Now retrofitting these surfaces with copper and installing self-sanitizing keyboards are two new ways that are beginning to show promise in reducing HAIs.

Germ-fighting Metal

Although it’s most commonly known for being an excellent conductor of electricity, copper has also been shown to have antimicrobial properties. Several studies that examine the effect of using copper to replace surfaces on bedrails, IV poles, overbed tables, chairs, and call buttons are currently underway.

One study, which is being funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is tracking infections in intensive care units (ICUs) at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.

Initial results released in 2011 show that hospital rooms fitted with copper surfaces had a 97% reduction in surface pathogens compared to non-coppered rooms. In addition, patients in ICU rooms with copper surfaces had a 40% lower risk of contracting an HAI than patients in rooms without copper.

Bacteria-blasting Light

With the increased emphasis on protecting our skin from the sun, most people are familiar with UV-A and UV-B radiation, but few have heard of UV-C light. UV-C light can be used to destroy bacteria by breaking down their molecular bonds. 

Vioguard, a company based in Kirkland, Wash., is using UV-C light in an innovative way on its self-sanitizing keyboard. The keyboard can be periodically retracted into its case where it is exposed to germicidal UV-C light from two 25-watt fluorescent lamps, killing surface bacteria. The mechanism for retracting and ejecting the keyboard uses a motorized drawer that works hands-free. The keyboard can be operated manually, but it also cycles on automatically after 10 minutes of down time.

The keyboard is the first device of its kind to be cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for use in healthcare settings. Vioguard claims that the light has proven to be 99.99% effective at killing harmful bacteria and viruses, including E. coli and MRSA, among others.

Vioguard recently funded a study at the Seattle Children’s Hospital where the keyboards were installed at clinical workstations in 12 locations in the hospital’s emergency department. The study showed that two thirds of the keyboards that received the UV-C light decontamination had no detectable bacteria after eight days of use.

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