Next time there is a global pandemic, contaminated water caused by flooding, or questionable-looking meat in a supermarket, we may be reaching for a piece of paper.
It won't be just any type of paper but a Canadian-invented bioactive paper that contains the ingredients to detect and ward off life-threatening bacteria and viruses like E-coli, salmonella and SARS, to name just a few.
Researchers from 10 universities across Canada, nine industry partners, and federal and provincial government agencies have formed a research consortium named the SENTINEL Bioactive Paper Network to develop low-cost and easy-to-use paper-based products with biologically active chemicals that can protect the public against increasing incidents of food-, water- and air-borne illnesses.
Potential products that could be manufactured using bioactive paper include: food packaging that signals the presence of E. coli and salmonella; hospital masks that detect and deactivate harmful air-borne viruses such as SARS; dip-sticks that can detect and purify unsafe drinking water; and paper strips that can check for banned pesticides on produce.
The term bioactive paper was coined by Robert Pelton, scientific director of SENTINEL and a professor of chemical engineering at McMaster University who specializes in pulp-and-paper research. The idea stemmed from conversations with colleagues back in 2004, inspired partially by the SARS outbreak that killed 44 Canadians and hundreds globally, and the anthrax scare in the United States.
"What bioactive paper will offer are immediacy, portability and low-cost in detecting and repelling or deactivating harmful pathogens," explains Pelton. "Right now, it can take days or weeks to get samples to a lab, diagnose the problem and get the remedy into the field."
The prevalence of food-, air- and water-borne illness is well documented. For example, there is an estimated:
- 76-million food-borne illnesses annually in the United States, resulting in over 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths and $7 billion US in medical costs;
- 1.6 million diarrhoel deaths annually due to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene - mainly among children under five in developing countries;
- One billion people who lack access to an improved water source.
Key to developing bioactive-paper products is the ability to merge advances in biochemistry with current paper-production processes. Researchers are investigating the development of a bioactive 'ink' which would allow biologically active chemicals to be printed, coated or impregnated onto or into paper using current paper-making and high-speed printing processes.
"The development of bioactive paper holds potential benefits for the paper products industry as well," says George Rosenberg, managing director of SENTINEL. "It provides our industrial partners with the opportunity to develop innovative, high value-added paper and packaging products."
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has provided $7.5 million in funding for the initiative over five years ending in 2010. Another $3 million over five years is being contributed by collaborating partners.