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March 17, 2017

Is salt the secret weapon against superbugs?

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 9, 2019.

Table salt could be a powerful weapon against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, according to recent research, Michael Hingston reports for The Atlantic.

Antibiotic overuse: Health care's $20 billion problem

Drug-resistant infections—which include so-called superbugs Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) —are a major problem, killing more than 700,000 people globally each year and in the United States alone they cost about $20 billion annually. Hospitals have implemented several strategies to combat the issue: frequent handwashing, for instance, and the installation of antimicrobial surfaces, such as copper-infused doorknobs.

But those strategies aren't fail proof, Hingston writes. He points out that handwashing "requires a behavior change, which can be difficult," and some studies have shown that superbugs like MRSA can survive on copper-infused services for several hours.

But now some researchers and entrepreneurs are saying salt could be used to create an affordable, more effective antimicrobial surface. Brayden Whitlock, a graduate student at the University of Alberta, decided to put salt to the test in a pilot study after a former butcher told him about how butchers have used salt as an antimicrobial agent for centuries.

For the study, Whitlock covered strips of antimicrobial copper, stainless steel, and compressed sodium chloride in an MRSA culture. He found that the salt reduced MRSA levels 85 percent after 20 seconds and by 95 percent after a minute—20 to 30 times faster than copper, Hingston writes.

Whitlock said the results are promising. "It's great to be able to eliminate pathogens over the course of a few hours," he explained, "but if you think of a busy place that has a doorknob, or a push pad, can you imagine a time when it goes more than a few minutes without being touched? The answer to us is no. And that's why this is really exciting."

Doug Olson, the former butcher who inspired Whitlock to study the idea, has received patents related to the approach in nine different countries. According to Hingston, some companies are already building prototype doorknobs coated in compressed salt.

Other uses

Salt's antimicrobial properties are also drawing the attention of other researchers at the University of Alberta, Hingston writes. Hyo-Jick Choi, an assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering, co-authored a paper which found "that soaking the inner membrane of a common surgical mask in a solution of sodium chloride made the mask actually able to destroy the flu virus outright, which could allow for multiple uses," Hingston writes.

Choi explained that salt ions on the inside of the mask create sharp crystals that "easily" kill the virus. He said such a mask could be particularly useful during a pandemic or flu outbreak in the months before a vaccine becomes available. Choi hopes to develop masks which would be cheap, reusable, and—because it relies on a physical process—deadly to a range of influenzas, rather than just one strain.

But Pedro Piedra, a professor in molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine, said such masks could still fall short because "it's really hard to wear a mask all day long," and pathogens could still pass through if masks are not well fitted (Hingston, The Atlantic, 3/3).

Eight steps for successful change initiatives

Performance improvement seems simple at first: identify a problem, then take steps to solve it. But in practice, many organizations struggle to get change initiatives off the ground, often due to four pitfalls: lack of leadership attention, poor work planning, rocky rollout, and insufficient follow-up.

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