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 wont 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: