Germ-Killing or Germ-Attracting?

You can't always get what you want. A material designed to be anti-microbial and kill germs actually hosts the little suckers quite amenably once the fabric gets out of the lab and into the real world, a Jefferson Lab scientist has found.

Michael Kelley, who studies applied science in a joint position at Jeff Lab and the College of William and Mary, has discovered that an "antimicrobial" fabric first researched by DuPont loses its effectiveness with just a simple coating of dust.

The synthetic material was first considered for its germ-killing properties about 20 years ago, when the company was studying laser-processed fabrics. Kelley worked there at the time.

He has been on the Peninsula since about 1999, and recently has been taking another look at the material's potential in, for example, hospitals, ambulances and squad cars.

The Department of Homeland Security funded his most recent research, which found that after about 70 to 90 days of real world use, a thin coating of everyday dust completely nullified the anti-microbial properties. Colonies of Kelley's test bacteria, E. coli, were found to be thriving.

So, back to the drawing board. Kelley and his collaborator, Olga Trofimova, are studying the material now with two questions in mind.

"Does it keep functioning in the real world? Stuff functions great in the lab," Kelley said. "And, two, does it improve human health?"

The second question gets to the fabric's potential use if Kelley or others can figure out a way to maintain its potency. Would it be suitable for upholstery and drapes in a hospital room? Or as seat covering in an ambulance or police car? (Newport News fire and police vehicles were the testing sites of Kelley's experiment.)

Kelley said his own research — the Homeland Security funding has dried up — will now try to find a way to keep dust, coffee spills or multiple washings from negating the material's use. If he can do that, then he'll seek a test, in a hospital-like setting to measure its benefit.