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Daylight Turns Plastic Sheet into Germ-Killing Material


FILE - A health worker sprays a colleague with disinfectant during a training session for Congolese health workers to deal with Ebola virus in Kinshasa, Oct. 21, 2014. The process of removing the full-body protective suit is a prime opportunity for infection if the surface of the gear is contaminated.

Daylight-powered microbe-killing masks and suits may someday help protect health workers from deadly germs like Ebola, according to new research.

Scientists have developed membranes that produce a tiny bit of disinfecting hydrogen peroxide when exposed to light. They could find their way into food packaging as well, the researchers say, helping cut down on foodborne diseases.

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

Nearly 500 health workers died during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Front-line caregivers wear full-body protective suits when they come into contact with patients with virulent diseases, but the process of removing the gear is a prime opportunity for infection if the surface is contaminated.

"If there's any live bacteria or virus on the surface, it's still transmissible and could cause infection," said University of California, Davis, researcher Gang Sun.

Sun and colleagues developed membranes that could line the outside of that protective gear. When exposed to daylight, molecules on the surface of these membranes react with oxygen in the air to produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide — less than what you'd use to remove laundry stains, but enough to kill germs, according to Sun.

"The approach is quite novel," said University of Maryland food scientist Rohan Tikekar, who was not involved with this research. He says others have developed materials that produce disinfecting chemicals, but most only work under high-energy ultraviolet light.

The new membrane also works in the dark, for at least an hour or two, thanks to chemical properties that recharge its germ-killing powers.

"That is a really significant improvement," Tikekar added.

In addition to coating protective gear for health workers, Sun says adding a layer of this material to fresh-produce packaging could reduce contamination and prolong storage life.

Some versions of the material use natural compounds. Sun says one of the next steps is to make it edible.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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