Paper-based medical gowns help protect against COVID-19
As mass shortages, poor manufacturing and the misuse of personal protective equipment (PPE) continue to plague many countries in their fight against COVID-19, Monash University researchers have come up with a simple, cost-effective and industrially scalable solution to keep health workers and patients safe.
Researchers at Monash’s Bioresource Processing Institute of Australia (BioPRIA), Department of Chemical Engineering and School of Biological Sciences have created medical gowns for healthcare workers and first responders using paper laminated with a coating of polyethylene — a lightweight thermoplastic. This innovation could see the mass rollout of high-quality PPE to vulnerable communities across the world.
“The global pandemic, spike in demand and shortage of traditional PPE materials suitable for viral transmission protection has driven researchers, virologists and biomedical experts to collaborate and explore low-cost alternative materials for medical gowns and other PPE,” said BioPRIA Director Professor Gil Garnier, who served as lead author on the new study.
“In the absence of genuine and appropriate PPE, many workers have adopted makeshift solutions, such as wearing plastic garbage bags as gowns, which fail to provide any protection and contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
“Suitable medical gowns must meet a number of requirements for tensile strength, seam strength, water penetration, hydrostatic pressure and viral protection. While paper is not an obvious material to manufacture gowns, it is easily accessible and produced in most countries.”
Working with their industrial partners from the ARC Research Hub for Processing Lignocellulosics into High Value Products (PALS), the research team engineered virus-safe medical gowns with both bleached Kraft paper and newsprint paper as the base material, and tested their viral protection, seam strengths and water vapour transmission rates when coated with layers of polyethylene.
Using fluorescent staining, the researchers were able to test the penetration of the Phi-X174 bacteriophage — a single-stranded DNA virus that infects E. coli, and the first DNA-based genome to be sequenced — on the paper gowns. If the virus was able to penetrate the polyethylene coating, create a hole and expose the paper, the fluorescent dye would mark each defect with a ‘stain’.
The researchers found that a combination of 49 GSM bleached Kraft paper with a 16 GSM polyethylene coating showed high tensile and seam strength, low water vapour transmission rate and the hindering of virus penetration.
Co-author Professor Mark Banaszak Holl, Head of Monash’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said paper might not seem like a wise choice because of its perceived weakness, high porosity and high wicking ability. But with the COVID-19 crisis having drastically limited worldwide access to polyolefin non-woven materials, and the advance of paper as an engineered material over the past decade, it’s more useful than people think.
“Laminated paper is a non-woven material with significant potential for use in medical gowns,” Prof Banaszak Holl said. “The inherent properties, ubiquitous availability, low cost, agile paper production and lamination processes make this material widely available, suitable to address the healthcare criteria and able to adapt to rapid changes in demand during a pandemic event or other emergency that results in critical PPE shortage situations.”
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