In China, it was called “qi,” the symbol for health. In Egypt it was called “ankh,” the symbol for eternal life. For the Phoenicians, the reference was synonymous with Aphrodite—the goddess of love and beauty.
These ancient civilizations were referring to copper, a material that cultures across the globe have recognized as vital to our health for more than 5,000 years. When influenzas, bacteria like E. coli, superbugs like MRSA, or even coronaviruses land on most hard surfaces, they can live for up to four to five days. But when they land on copper, and copper alloys like brass, they begin to die within minutes and are undetectable within hours. “We’ve seen viruses just blow apart,” says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. “They land on copper and it just degrades them.”
No wonder that in India, people have been drinking out of copper cups for millennia. Even here in the United States, a copper line brings in your drinking water. Copper is a natural, passive, antimicrobial material. It can self-sterilize its surface without the need for electricity or bleach.
Copper boomed during the Industrial Revolution as a material for objects, fixtures, and buildings. Copper is still widely used in power networks – the copper market is, in fact, growing because the material is such an effective conductor. But the material has been pushed out of many building applications by a wave of new materials from the 20th century. Plastics, tempered glass, aluminum, and stainless steel are the materials of modernity-used for everything from architecture to Apple products. Brass door knobs and handrails went out of style as architects and designers opted for sleeker-looking (and often cheaper) materials.
Now Keevil believes it’s time to bring copper back in public spaces, and hospitals in particular. In the face of an unavoidable future full of global pandemics, we should be using copper in healthcare, public transit, and even our homes. And while it’s too late to stop COVID-19, it’s not too early to think about our next pandemic.