updated 12/31/2007 3:40:19 PM ET 2007-12-31T20:40:19

Some intensive-care units in the U.S. are about to get copper fittings as part of a project to test if drug-resistant bacteria survive better on hospitals' ubiquitous stainless steel than on copper.

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About 1.7 million Americans a year develop infections while hospitalized and almost 100,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists have long preached better hygiene to control hospital spread of germs, but increasingly medical manufacturers are looking to anti-germ coatings to help.

In November, the Food and Drug Administration approved sale of the first breathing tube coated with silver, a metal long known to somewhat repel bacteria.

Ventilator patients are at high risk of getting pneumonia. In a multi-hospital study, 7.5 percent of patients given a regular breathing tube developed pneumonia, compared to 4.8 percent of those given C.R. Bard Inc.'s new Argento ventilation tube, the FDA found.

Also this fall, Baxter HealthCare Corp. announced FDA clearance of a silver-coated IV catheter connector, designed to help prevent bacteria from clustering at this entry point to the bloodstream.

But a coppery hue in hospitals?

In a British study published last year, drug-resistant staph germs survived for three days on stainless steel plates kept at room temperature, but the researchers found no sign of the germs on pure copper after 90 minutes.

The new study, funded by a government grant to the Copper Development Association, is putting that finding to a real-world test involving three drug-resistant bugs _ staph, enterococci and acinetobacter.

First, researchers are swabbing down a handful of ICU rooms at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Medical University of South Carolina and a Veterans Affairs medical center. They must learn where the germs lurk, explains Sloan-Kettering lead researcher Dr. Kent Sepkowitz.

Then the hospitals will substitute copper for some germ-prone surfaces in those rooms, and track if the change makes a difference.

Copper is expensive, but so are hospital-caused infections, Sepkowitz says.

"The question is will it save more money than it costs," he says.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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