The Oligodynamic Effect: How Doorknobs Clean Themselves

Heavy metals have been a topic of concern in recent years, which is quite justified among toxic metals such as mercury, lead, and aluminum. But did you know other metals can actually be beneficial to the body? Silver, copper, and brass all possess a special quality that makes them as hard-working as they are good-looking: they destroy bacteria.

How? Termed the “Oligodynamic Effect”, the process actually isn’t well understood, but it’s thought that, in simple terms, the metal ions bind with proteins in bacteria cells, a fatal attraction which renders the bacteria inactive. And the process is potent: one study tested water contaminated with E.coli and Salmonella in brass, silver and copper pots. Within four hours, the copper pot had killed off all the Salmonella in its water; silver and brass followed suit shortly after, at eight and twelve hours, respectively. Thus, we find the reason why the copper kettle and the silver spoon have been used throughout history: their usage helped to prevent food poisoning.

Indeed, even the ancients were aware of this effect. Ancient Egyptians were using copper more than 4,000 years ago to sterilize wounds and drinking water, and Aztecs used copper to treat skin conditions.

Considering further applications of the oligodynamic effect, the next logical place would be on common spaces we all share and dread, especially during cold and flu season: door handles. One study tested hospital doorknobs and found those made of brass and copper exhibited an antibacterial effect, with the copper having partially sterilized itself within just 15 minutes. Amazingly, copper was also found effective against the MRSA superbug; one study showed a copper surface at room temperature neutralized 100 million MRSA bacteria cells within 90 minutes.

Considering hospitals are hotbeds of infectious germs, where patients are especially vulnerable to MRSA, it would make sense for designers to use copper in hospitals as much as possible. Copper door handles, light switches, faucets, and toilet seats could significantly cut back on sickness and death rates, a hallmark of a more evolved society. And in fact, this has already been put into practice at the Harburg Asklepios Clinic in Germany, a 774-bed hospital, in a major installation of copper touch surfaces in 2014.

Unfortunately, stainless steel and aluminum door handles are cheaper and therefore much more commonly used. Likewise, most flatware today is made with stainless steel instead of silver — and they are brimming with bacteria. In the same aforementioned study that tested MRSA on copper, MRSA was also tested on steel and aluminum surfaces, and on those surfaces, the number of bacteria actually increased.

Without the oligodynamic effect to work for you on these types of door handles and other surfaces, you are quite right to spray and wipe them often when sick people have been in the building, and to use a non-alcohol and non-triclosan based hand sanitizer when in any public setting. Flatware — forks, spoons and knives — may be automatically sanitized in a dishwasher, but if you are washing them by hand, further measures have to be taken, such as soaking them in a bleach solution.

But those who don’t have any actual silver in their silverware can benefit from the oligodynamic effect in another way, which also allows avoiding use of bleach or triclosan. Modern applications of oligodynamic metals are now found in hydrosol form — namely, colloidal silver. This product has seen a dramatic uptick in popularity in recent years, and in fact, this article assignment was a serendipitous reminder that the author needed to stop at the local health food store and pick up a bottle.

Colloidal silver is proving to be a worthy addition to the home medicine cabinet, with numerous applications topically as well as internally. Users report relief from everything from sinus infections to acne to cold and flu and even stronger viral infections such as EBV (Epstein-Barr Virus). In a world of resistant bacteria that have evolved from the overuse of pharmaceutical antibiotics and antibacterial soap products, a high quality colloidal silver product seems to be the answer we are looking for, and we can expect to see it used in more products to come.

Additional new oligodynamic products on the market include copper mugs and water bottles. is flooded with listings for these; a search of “copper mug” returns over 6,000 results. And while this metal might look fancy, it’s actually relatively inexpensive; you can get a copper mug for as low as ten dollars. And it’ll give you something fresh to talk about during coffee breaks!

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