16 Mar 2012

Innovating with Antimicrobial Components

Stuart Hutchings, Marketing Manager, Elektron Technology describes the technology and importance of antimicrobial switches

Here’s a startling fact – one harmful microbe is capable of multiplying into more than four million within only eight hours. Just as unsettling are the eye-catching media headlines, such as the infamous test conducted by consumer group ‘Which?’ which found that one of the computer keyboards in its London office harboured five times more germs than a toilet seat.

Even as recently as October 2011 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary University of London announced the findings of a study suggesting that one in six mobile phones is contaminated with faecal matter.

It’s a fact of life that harmful microbes including bacteria, viruses, mould and fungi are all around us so good hygiene practices and bacteria management need to be high on our agenda. This is especially the case in ‘high traffic’ public places.

Microbial Effects

Hand hygiene has been a major focal point in recent years, coupled with public awareness campaigns and staff training - but washing your hands can only have a short-term benefit because it needs to be repeated regularly. Despite the best intentions microbes will occur even in the cleanest environment. So what else can be done to provide protection against the potential health, reputation and commercial consequences of, for example, an outbreak of MRSA, E. coli or Salmonella?

This article considers steps that can be taken during the design of products to support effective bacteria management, outlining the potential uses and value to design engineers of an innovative new breed of antimicrobial component.

First point of contact

A switch is often the first or most frequent contact point when a user interacts with a product, and as a result is a surface where microbes are often spread the most. As more and more component parts are used for applications in ‘high traffic’ public applications such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, leisure facilities and general public amenities design engineers are now on the look out for component products which can provide safe, long-lasting and built-in antimicrobial protection.

Thankfully innovative suppliers have now come up with a unique way to incorporate proven antimicrobial additives into ranges of electronic switches.

How does antimicrobial technology work? Antimicrobial technologies work by slowly releasing tiny amounts of a chemical which interferes with a microbe’s ability to reproduce – so as bacteria land on a surface, they die rather than multiply.

Two routes

There are two types of antimicrobial technology. The lower cost but less effective option is to use an organic chemical A number of these chemicals have been scientifically linked to serious illnesses such as cancer thus limiting their use in many applications. Another problem with organic treatments is that they decompose and leach from a product over time, reducing in efficiency over the life cycle of a product. It is also common for bacteria to develop resistance to organic antimicrobials over time due to their biological structure.

Microbial Effects

A far more effective antimicrobial option is the inorganic route. The antimicrobial characteristics of certain metals and their alloys have been demonstrated for decades. Metals such as copper and zinc have been proven to cause cell death, but silver is widely regarded as the most effective and long lasting antimicrobial treatment. It appears also that bacteria don’t develop resistance to silver, as silver’s multi-modal antimicrobial activity reduces the opportunity for resistance to emerge. Also, unlike organic antimicrobial materials, silver is non-toxic and very safe to use.

How to use silver

In the case of electronic switches, manufacturers are able to mix in silver ion additives to the plastic during the manufacturing process. These then congregate on the surface of the finished product. A low concentration is slowly released over time, giving the product its lifelong antimicrobial protection. When any microbe comes into contact with the silver-treated surface the ions bind with the bacterial proteins in the cell and cell wall. This interferes with DNA replication, leaving the microbes unable to re-produce and spread.

Rigorous testing

Rigorous R&D and testing processes are required to develop antimicrobial product ranges. Protected products must be validated and quality control tested to ISO 22196 where applicable, in an independent laboratory and only products that demonstrate over a 95% reduction in microbes can display quality seals of approval for superior antimicrobial performance.

A number of environmental trials in hospitals, food processing and care homes have scientifically proven that silver ion treated products are as effective in situ as in laboratory testing, consistently reducing levels of microbial contamination in the environment by over 95%.

Increased functionality and competitive advantages

Component parts will always be selected on the basis of their functionality and the characteristics they can add to enhance a finished product. In the case of antimicrobial components, this allows a design engineer to offer a new advantage to the end user. Silver ion technology provides antimicrobial protection without compromising the aesthetic design or technical characteristics of a product.

Antimicrobial components present OEMs with a distinctive new feature, which offers a key differentiator in a highly competitive market. Consider the choice your customers face – do they buy an electronic device built using proven, highly functional and high performance component parts, or an identical product which provides all of these features plus protection against the spread of surface bacteria? It sounds like a no brainer.

New expectations for component parts

Controlling the spread of harmful microbes will only grow in importance in time as the general public become more aware of how surface bacteria is spread. As well as being a key tactile part of product design - perhaps even a design feature - the humble switch now has a significant role to play in preventing the spread of surface bacteria and by choosing these antimicrobial component parts, an OEM ensures their product boasts the same advantages.

Elektron Technology’s produces a range of popular Arcolectric standard and miniature rocker switches, push button switches, double pole switches and splash/dust covers. During the moulding process, these are manufactured with leading evidence-based antimicrobial technology provider BioCote’s silver ion technology. This creates what are believed to be the world’s first antimicrobial appliance switches. Arcolectric’s antimicrobial ranges present OEMs with a distinctive new feature, which offers a key point of end equipment differentiation and significantly enhances the benefits to the end user or the product.

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