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Masks have come a long way since COVID-19 hit the world in earnest earlier this year. We’ve gone from basic surgical and N95 masks to home-made styles made of scarves and socks to stylish version bedecked with sequins.
Now, we’re hearing about masks made of copper. The theory is that the material that pennies are made of could reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Florida-based microbiologist Phyllis Kuhn, the founder of Kuhn Copper Solutions, developed a face mask and an insert made of copper. She first started making them years ago in an attempt to avoid getting sick due to so much air travel, turning to copper because of its antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
The company makes the “Well Mask” (a.k.a. the Kuhn All Copper Mask, which retails for $25 USD) as well as the Kuhn All Copper Mesh Insert. The latter can be used with regular surgical or cloth masks (and comes in a set of two for $25 USD).
According to the company’s website, both products allow a tiny amount of copper to be deposited in the nostrils during use.
“In published reports, copper is known to inactivate most coronaviruses, flu, and respiratory viruses and kill bacteria on contact,” the site says.
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Multiple studies going back years back up the claim that copper kills various germs.
A 2011 study published in Environmental Microbiology, for example, found that Escherichia coli (E. coli) died within 10 minutes of resting on the metal.
A 2015 study published in mBio, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology, noted that previous research had shown that noroviruses are destroyed on copper alloy surfaces. This particular study found that human coronavirus 229E was inactivated within a few minutes of resting on a range of copper alloys. (The 229E strain is one of several human coronavirus types. Also known as alpha coronavirus, it’s not the same kind as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.)
“Exposure to copper destroyed the viral genomes and irreversibly affected virus morphology, including disintegration of envelope and dispersal of surface spikes,” the authors wrote in the study, which was supported by the Copper Development Association and the International Copper Association. “Consequently, copper alloy surfaces could be employed in communal areas and at any mass gatherings to help reduce transmission of respiratory viruses from contaminated surfaces and protect the public health.”
Kuhn’s masks are flying off the shelf; the company’s website states that because of increased demand, orders are taking two to three weeks on a first-come, first-served basis.
And the company isn’t the only one producing copper masks around the world.
Myant Inc. is another. Based in Toronto, it’s making textile face masks that contain copper and silver yarn, “known to maximize protection against bacterial and viral threats” its website says. The venture carries several styles, with a two-pack of Endura Masks going for $30.
While copper surfaces have been proven to be lethal to some microbes, the science is lacking when it comes to the material’s potential to reduce the transmission of germs when used in face masks.
“Currently, no data are available on the use of the Kuhn All Copper Mask and the Kuhn All Copper Mesh Insert with coronavirus,” Kuhn’s website says. “Further research is needed.”
Craig Hart, director of the Mineral Deposit Research Unit in the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at UBC, explains that copper is highly oxidative, meaning it oxidizes very quickly.
Think of a shiny new penny: the reason it gets darker over time, with very old pennies being black, is because “the copper metal is doing everything it can to react with oxygen in the air and form this new compound called copper oxide,” Hart tells Yahoo Canada. “Copper is highly reactive. So if you put a cell on there, it has to deal with an environment that is actively oxidizing. That reactive surface is a really hostile place for something like bacteria.
“The cells of those membranes are in a hostile environment and eventually the reactivity will break cell walls down and destroy the RNA and DNA in the cells,” he says.
If all of the high-touch surfaces we encounter in society on a daily basis—think doorknobs, countertops, railings, handles, and so on—were made of copper, there’s an argument to be made for a potential reduction in disease transmission, Hart notes. But that’s unlikely to happen because people prefer the look of shiny stainless steel because it appears cleaner than copper, which starts to look dirty and dingy over time.
And it’s not a given that what makes a copper surface so good at killing germs would have the same effect when someone wears a mask made of it over their nose and mouth. The purpose of masks during the pandemic, after all, is to prevent the wearer from infecting others through their own spray or droplets.
“Mostly, a mask is a barrier,” Hart says. “I’m not certain that the copper is a better barrier.”