Copper has been in use by humans for about 10,000 years and without this incredible metal, society could not possibly be what it is today. With a vast amount of uses, copper is antimicrobial, corrosion-resistant, and a superior heat and electricity conductor that has revolutionized technology and our modern way of life.
This beautiful, soft and malleable red/orange/pink metal is one of the only natural metals that is directly usable and does not need to be separated from ore. For thousands of years, humans have used copper for everything from the decorative arts to currency, from cooking vessels to plumbing, and from conducting electricity to protecting boats from barnacles and salt water.
Mixed with other metals to form alloys, copper becomes even more useful. Mixed with tin, copper makes bronze, and blended with zinc, it makes brass. Early use of bronze armor protected ancient Greeks and made superior weapons and tools during the Bronze Age, and brass hardware for construction and electricals notwithstanding, where would we be without a horn section?
With its incredible amount of uses, copper drives our world through its use in telecom, computers, motors, and transport. "Everything that you touch over the course of a day will have copper in it, or have some connection to copper," said Andrew Kireta, President of the Copper Development Association in the U.S. (source).
On a biological level, cells need copper to survive -- it is a trace element that helps form red blood cells, connective tissue, and keeps nerves and the immune system healthy. Though we only need trace amounts of copper, without it, we can develop anemia, bone deficiency, fatigue, and low white blood cell count, among other symptoms.
Interestingly, copper also indicates the health of the global economy. CNBC reported in February that "when demand for copper increases, that means industrial activity is on the rise because copper is used to make a wide array of things from new factories, to new houses and automobiles."
The gift of copper keeps on giving.
Copper use can be very innovative. When the metal is infused into textiles, the benefits of copper's antimicrobial and heat conducting benefits shine though.
At this time of year with one foot still in winter and the other firmly planted in spring, sorting out the right textile weight can be tricky. Think of your bedding, for example. The winter-spring transition can leave our bodies in "temperature confusion" - one night we're still chilly with an extra blanket, and the next night too hot with the window open. Either way, the air is warmer and we're going to sweat--much of that sweat will come from our heads.
Our pillows absorb a lot of perspiration during sleeping hours. Perspiration contains bacteria, so the idea of adding copper to pillows is rather a stroke of genius.
U. S. bedding company, Pangeabed makes use of copper's antibacterial and heat conducting properties in their pillows and mattresses. The company uses Talalay, an antibacterial latex made of natural rubber that is infused with copper; whipped, poured into a mould, and then flash-frozen for stability. Blending copper with Talalay latex which is designed with a breathable open cell structure, makes both sides of the pillow cool and bacteria-free. Good news for the temperature-sensitive among us.
Copper in Healthcare
With regular cleaning, the Antimicrobial Copper Organization says that antimicrobial copper surfaces kill more than 99.9% of staph bacteria within two hours of exposure. In their constant fight with bacteria, some hospitals make use of copper for trays, door handles, charts, sinks, carts, and other hardware to stop the spread of bacteria.
In the UK, an innovative copper development for medical use has come to light.
Amber McCleary, in a student project to invent an odorless dog bed, realized the potential for copper fabrics when a friend acquired the difficult-to-treat Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) superbug after a C-section. Ms. McCleary brought her friend a pair of copper-infused pajamas, and within two days of wear, the infection had shown great improvement.
Ms. McCleary tested her antibacterial copper theories and inoculated two gowns with bacteria in a lab. The first, a traditional hospital gown, developed 400 million colony-forming units on the fabric, but the copper-infused gown had zero. In an address to the Royal Society of Medicine, Ms. McCleary explains that copper destroys the DNA in bacteria, and this keeps the cells from replicating.
Some businesses have introduced copper-infused products in the name of pain relief - i.e. copper compression pieces or copper bracelets said to relieve arthritic and muscle pain. Some people report pain relief via copper products, but others, including Consumer Reports, cite that there is no outstanding evidence that suggests that wearing copper is beneficial to pain relief.
"There are no reliable studies supporting the healing powers of copper-infused fabrics," says Consumer Reports medical director Orly Avitzur, M.D. "It's extremely unlikely that these fabrics would provide any therapeutic benefit beyond compression for arthritis or pain."
There are arguments on both sides of the transdermal copper absorption idea. Presumably, the copper present in McCleary's fabrics ward off infection-causing bacteria, but copper-infused compression garments and copper bracelets for pain--and not infection--may not have the effect they are marketed to have.
It seems to me that to get the full benefits of internalized copper, we should just stick to eating things like leafy greens, nuts, whole grains, potatoes, and shellfish to get the full daily amount of recommended copper (which is surprisingly a very small amount: 900 micrograms a day for adults, or 0.0009 grams per day).
As the soft metal underdog that once made our pretty pennies, copper is imperative to body function and is at the root of our civilization. Copper is beautiful, practical, completely recyclable, and worth its weight in gold.
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