older man in a hospital bed

University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell) researchers have created germ-killing fabric that could help stop the spread of communicable diseases.

The team is working to embed a germ-killing agent known as N-halamine into hospital scrubs and other garments worn by medical professionals and patients to reduce the risk of exposure to drug-resistant bacteria and other harmful pathogens in health-care settings, announces the university in a press release.

On any given day, one in 31 patients develops an infection as a result of their hospital stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health-care staff are also at greater risk to fall ill from infection due to germs present in their work environment.

UMass Lowell researchers are developing a way not only to treat fabrics with N-halamine, but to re-charge the textile's effectiveness in killing germs by rinsing it in bleach as part of the laundry cycle.

"Wearers can check the N-halamine level in the fabric with potassium iodine strips. If the test shows that the N-halamine on the fabric surface is used up, the fabric's germ-fighting ability can be renewed by rinsing it in a bleach solution. The recharging process can be repeated as needed throughout the entire service life of the garments," says Yuyu Sun, a chemistry professor at UMass Lowell. Sun is leading the research with Nancy Goodyear, associate professor of biomedical and nutritional sciences.

In contrast, removing harmful bacteria on health-care workers' clothing that is not treated with a germ-killing agent would require the wearers to change their garments every few hours, says Goodyear.

In current practice, health-care facilities launder employees' lab coats an average of every 11 to 13 days, while hospital scrubs are washed every day-and-a-half to two days, according to published surveys, says Sun.

Most hospitals provide a laundry service for scrubs, through which workers deposit the garments in a pickup bin at the end of the shift. But some healthcare personnel are responsible for washing their own scrubs, leading to the possibility that the garments are worn for several shifts before being cleaned. Laundry routines at home may also be inadequate to eliminate pathogens and any germs on the clothes may cross-contaminate other items in the wash, says Goodyear.

Beyond clothing, the UMass Lowell researchers are concerned that other fabrics in health-care facilities such as bedding and draperies could be a breeding ground for germs. About 37 percent of hospitals launder their curtains only when they are visibly soiled, according to a study cited by the researchers.

While germ-laden fabrics put the health and safety of hospital workers and patients at risk, existing research suggests the impact of such contamination is underestimated because of a lack of investigations into whether textiles are the source of the germs during illness outbreaks, say the researchers.

Preliminary studies have shown fabrics treated with N-halamine to be effective against pathogens including E. coli, MRSA, Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans, among others, says Goodyear. The UMass Lowell researchers are added are continuing to test the fabric to see how it performs against other types of pathogens.