East Alton brass mill fights hospital germs

East Alton brass mill fights hospital germs

Nov 06, 2016

Original article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Jim Gallagher

A big, noisy, century-old brass mill in East Alton turns the likes of old bullet casings and bent Canadian quarters into copper alloys for American industry.

It might also save hospital patients from infection and keep some St. Louis Blues players off the sick list.

That unlikely marriage of smokestack industry and medicine takes advantage of a long-known fact: Bacteria can’t survive long on copper.

That has Olin Brass trumpeting its CuVerro alloy to manufacturers serving hospitals, schools and gyms — places where the sick and healthy can touch the same things.

Its message: Our metal kills nasty little bugs.

CuVerro was approved as antibacterial by the Environmental Protection Agency. Put it where people touch, and they are less likely to spread illness, says Olin Brass.

The company has some buy-in. The Blues’ players share weights with handles made of CuVerro.

Olin Brass hangs its hat on scientific studies conducted in hospitals as well as the EPA’s approval.

Grinnell Regional Medical Center in Iowa did its own experiment, putting CuVerro copper fixtures in some patient rooms, then comparing them to standard rooms. It found 90 percent less bacteria in the rooms with copper.

The results were published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

“It was not just a little better. There was significantly less bacterial load,” said Todd Linden, CEO of the 50-bed hospital. “There is a 24/7 ‘killing machine’ going on.”

Another study found a 58 percent reduction in patient infections in rooms fitted with copper at three other hospitals, as well as an 83 percent cut in bacteria. A third study in a pediatric intensive care unit found infections dropped from 13 to 10.6 per 1,000 patient days.

The latter two studies, published in medical journals, had some support from the copper industry, although nonindustry scientists and doctors were involved.

The Grinnell hospital is now installing copper in patient and treatment rooms. It is being used for sinks, countertops, bed railings, grab bars, light switches, doorknobs and other things that people touch. Nurse stations have copper keys on keyboards.

“It’s not costly. Door handles are not where you spend the money,” Linden said.

Sales may get a boost from the fact that raw copper is cheaper these days. After hitting $4.50 a pound in 2011, it’s now trading in the $2.20 range.

Still, Olin Brass estimates that using copper might raise the cost of outfitting a hospital room and bath by $2,500 to $3,000. Linden puts the cost about 15 percent more than other fixtures.

Linden thinks the money is worth it, given the cost of infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1 in 25 hospital patients caught an infection while there in 2014. That’s 772,000 people, and 75,000 of them died in the hospital. The cost of treating those infections was $24 billion to $34 billion.

Drug-resistant bacteria make the task tougher. Hospitals are fighting six strains of bacteria that are immune to antibiotics. They can’t survive on copper.

Grinnell’s hospital staff cleans patient rooms every day. When patients leave, they seal the doors and windows and use a machine that spews hydrogen peroxide to kill germs. That works for a while, but germs return even if the room remains empty.

Copper surfaces do best when combined with antibacterial washing, when the surface will stay bacteria-free for longer.

Making the sale

Hospitals’ interest in infection control goes beyond the humane to the financial. Private insurers often pay hospitals to treat people for infections they acquire in the hospital. Medicare won’t, and it has started to reduce other payment rates to hospitals with high infection rates. Linden suspects that private insurers will eventually follow Medicare’s lead.

Copper has long been known to resist disease. The ancient Egyptians used it to purify drinking water in 2500 B.C. The Greeks of old used it to clean wounds.

But possible benefits in modern hospitals were pretty much ignored until recent years, when the copper industry spotted a market.

CuVerro is an alloy, made up of 80 to 90 percent copper, plus nickel, said Tony Kulik, brand director for CuVerro. The nickel adds strength and prevents a “patina” — the process of copper turning green when exposed to atmosphere.

Olin Brass worked from 2008 to 2011 to get the EPA to approve CuVerro copper as a microbe killer. That was key to selling it as a health product.

The EPA didn’t argue with the science presented by Olin Brass, said Mark Visnack, Olin Brass commercial solutions leader. But it was used to certifying powders and liquids and it took time to understand a metal.

Olin Brass then had to sell it to manufacturers of sinks, tabletops and the like.

“We’re at the beginning of the curve when it comes to adoption,” Kulik said. “We’re really starting to hit the market with it.” The products are in 250 facilities in 38 states and 13 countries.

Melting and mixing

Two East Alton plants employ 1,100 people making dozens of alloys, ranging from thin strips for electronics to thick caps for copper tubing.

They work amid machines reaching three stories into the air, making a cacophony of sound that turns talk into shouts and makes earplugs a good idea.

The raw material includes sheets of new copper from mines in Utah and South America, stacked up in the warehouse. But much of the production comes from recycling scrap.

A big bin at the mill is filled with old Canadian quarters, bent so they can’t be used. Those dated before 1999 are made of nickel. Canada is selling them for scrap.

There are piles of brass bullet and shell casings from federal armories and tangles of copper wire from old electric generators. Workers have to be careful that no live rounds are mixed in with the casings

The wire, quarters, shell casings and new copper are melted down and mixed together, with different mixes for different alloys.

That is done in giant furnaces, which pour the hot mixture into big rectangular molds. Out come massive slabs of copper alloy, 40 feet long, 30 inches wide and 6 to 9 inches thick.

The slabs are heated again in order to be squeezed in a machine between hot rollers. The 40,000-pound slabs, glowing red, ride on a conveyor, going back and forth, trip after trip through the squeezing machine, getting thinner and longer with each pass.

They can end up as sheets as thin as three-thousandths of an inch, rolled into great coils for shipment to manufacturers.

Some of what they make jingles in American pockets. The mill makes metal for nickels, dimes, quarters and dollar coins. They are 89 percent copper, with the rest mainly nickel. The penny, which looks like copper, is actually 95 percent zinc with copper plating.

Olin Brass was owned by Clayton-based Olin Corp. until it was sold in 2007. It’s now owned by Global Brass and Copper Holdings, a publicly traded company based in Schaumburg, Ill.