Surface deep

Lest it be suspected that Age has hardened my views and narrowed my interests, I would like it to be known that I have broadened my scope: it now includes surfaces. Of course, I suspect that has been the case for many years, but only tachistoscopically -noticed briefly in passing, as it were. There are so many surfaces though, it’s hard to assimilate any but those that have slid off either end of the Bell curve. I’d be overwhelmed; they’re everywhere and therefore noticed mainly in their absence -the sky being a good example.

Still, surfaces are important, if only because they keep the stuff inside from spilling out. Well, that’s what the younger me used to think. I was a romantic pragmatist in those days -everything had a function, however mundane. And as such, it was hard to concentrate on stodgy utilitarian things when the rest of world seemed so exciting. I imagine I was seduced by other, more compelling issues, even though I was so shy I could never get a date for the sock-hop dances.

But now, in my fading yellow leaf, I wonder how I missed the excitement, the volupté of surfaces. Who would have thought that their liminality would give rise to unimagined hope? That the castigatory expression ‘it’s only surface-deep’ would engender such reverence -or is it, ‘skin-deep’? Whatever, you get the sense of my wonder, I hope.

The apotheosis of my admiration was buttressed by a serendipitous encounter with a BBC Future article written by one of their freelance journalists, Christine Ro:

She starts by describing the intention of Larrouy-Maumus, an infectious disease researcher at Imperial College London, ‘to turn the very surfaces that… pathogens use to spread from person to person into weapons against them.’ Right away, I could tell I was onto something big.

‘“The surfaces we touch in our daily routine can be a vector of transmission,”’ he says, doom positively dripping from the words. But it gets worse: ‘Indeed, the virus that causes Covid-19 – Sars-CoV-2 – can persist on cardboard for up to 24 hours, while on  plastic and stainless steel it can remain active for up to three days. Some bacteria – including E. Coli and MRSA – can survive for several months on inanimate surfaces, while infectious yeasts can last for weeks.’ I suppose I knew that, but to have it confront me so nakedly on the page was alarming, to say the least. Sometimes I just don’t want to think about it, eh?

Fortunately, Ro softens the message: ‘By simply changing the texture of the surfaces we use, or coating them with substances that kill bacteria and viruses more quickly, some scientists hope it may be possible to defeat infectious organisms before they even get into our bodies.’

Larrouy-Maumus likes copper -it’s a love we both share, even though my copper project in high school art class didn’t turn out as I hoped. He was probably assigned a different project, however: ‘The ions in copper alloys are both antiviral and antibacterial, able to kill over 99.9% of bacteria within two hours.’ But, ‘copper isn’t widely used in medical facilities today. It is expensive and harder to clean without causing corrosion.’ And he doesn’t think people would like to sit on copper toilet seats; I believe he has a point.

Still, using the metal in alloys on frequently touched areas such as elevator buttons and  doorknobs could help to reduce contamination. And, for those of us who would prefer a  more high-tech touch, ‘Copper surfaces can also be treated with lasers to create a rugged texture that increases the surface area – and, by extension, the number of bacteria it can kill.’ Even antibiotic resistant bacteria, apparently.

Or, alternatively, Elena Ivanova, a molecular biochemist at RMIT University in Australia figures you can alter surfaces to make them superhydrophobic so microbes roll off with the water. That’s cheating a bit, though -cicada wings have been doing it for years. Of course, they also have little microscopic spikey things so biofilms can’t form colonies there.

Another surface that might work is graphene. ‘graphene sheets are incredibly thin, with “sharp edges that could cut through the bacterial membrane and kill it” (though these tiny razor blades are too minute to damage human skin).’

Ivanova, however, is particularly excited about hydrothermally etching titanium and titanium alloy surfaces to form a fine sheet with sharp edges that can kill different types of bacteria. Me, I’m old fashioned and like the look of copper. And anyway, viruses are a lot smaller and harder to impale on spikes, or sharp edges I imagine, so my money’s still on ions.

But, of course, we have to be careful not to think that merely making surfaces safer, somehow solves our infection problems -they’re just soldiers, after all. Mengying Ren, a policy officer at the network Re-Act – Action on Antibiotic Resistance, based in Sweden, reminds us that  ‘“regardless of how good the technologies are, we will still need to consider the basics at the healthcare facilities, such as healthcare staffing, cleaners, hygiene and IPC [infection prevention and control] facilities, as well as vaccination coverage and capacity. There is no easy fix.” In lower-income countries, which don’t always have a reliable supply of running water, it may be especially hard to maintain the kinds of antimicrobial surfaces that require frequent cleaning. For instance, surfaces with nanospikes might need to be regularly cleared of dead microorganisms and other debris.

‘However, Ivanova says that with titanium and titanium alloys, “pathogenic cells’ debris [detach] away from the surfaces” – essentially making them self-cleaning. Copper would need to be polished to limit oxidisation, which would make it less reactive.’ Good to know.

Anyway, I emerged from all the words with a renewed sense of surface-awe. I mean, who knew what potential waited for us just beneath our fingerprints? Touch is so important to us; we should pay attention to what the surface we touch can do for us as much as to us. It sometimes looks innocent, but it lies; it makes me want to paraphrase that famous Michael Caine quote: surface is a duck -calm on top, but paddling like the dickens underneath.


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