Wool confirmed as air cleaner

25 Nov, 1999 12:52 AM
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WOOLGROWERS are excited about potential for new markets for the fibre in the building industry. At the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) annual meeting in Florence earlier this year, German researchers Gabriele and Franz-Josef Wortmann profiled their research on how wool can be used to help overcome sick building syndrome. While the consequences of interior air pollution are not clearly understood, there are reports that health disorders in connection with air contaminants are on the rise. The two scientists examined how wool can be used to absorb toxic agents from the air. The initial laboratory part of the study used formaldehyde, a gas used as a disinfectant or preservative, to demonstrate the cleansing ability of wool. It showed that, when applying 300 parts per million of formaldehyde to wool, about 97 per cent of the gas was absorbed by the fibre within 24 hours, with 80-88pc of the reduction having taken place in the first two hours. "Wool is a protein fibre, which consists of amino acids that are able to react with a variety of chemical substances," Dr Gabriele Wortmann said. "Formaldehyde diffuses into the wool fibre, in the same way as water in a dye, and is able to react with the wool proteins chemically. "Wool is not converted to another substance, but the wool proteins are cross-linked by the formaldehyde, in the same way that fingernails are hardened by a special nail polish." However, she said, because the concentrations of formaldehyde in indoor air are so small, it would take at least two years to saturate the wool protein with pollutants. The scientists concluded it was plausible that building products linked with tightly woven wool could be used to clean a formaldehyde contaminated building. "Walls in prefabricated buildings containing large quantities of press board, a source for formaldehyde contaminants, could be covered with lined gypsum boards to prevent further indoor air pollution," their IWTO report said. The Wortmanns took their research to the field and discovered that, by applying wool to formaldehyde-contaminated houses and public buildings, the concentrations were reduced to less than half of the acceptable standards. The Woolmark Company's interior textiles division manager Geoff Robinson said similar research was carried out by the organisation in 1995, but there was room for more research. "I do not think anybody has fully researched the full extent of whether wool can absorb something and whether it can be reabsorbed back into the air," Mr Robinson said. But he said Woolmark was not promoting wool as a cure for sick building syndrome. "We do not single out sick building syndrome as something wool can fix," Mr Robinson said. He said there was a "bit of interest" in wool for absorbing pollutants, but it was only one part of the overall benefits of the wool fibre that Woolmark was promoting. Mr Robinson said Woolmark was seeking to build on the six million kilograms of wool worth $390m that went into the interior textile market each year. "What we are trying to do is keep increasing that market for wool that goes into offices, planes and vehicles," he said. It is the medium to broader micron wool that is consumed by the interior textile market, with 85 per cent of it around 25.5 microns, although wool as fine as 16 microns is also used. Stud Merino Breeders Association of WA president Peter Ralston, who has a particular interest in alternative uses for wool, was excited about the potential market for wool as a pollutant absorbent. "It seems to be a golden opportunity for Woolmark to promote this unknown aspect of wool," Mr Ralston said. "In this day and age, when people need to take care of their employees, you would think that big companies would look at the potential of lining their offices with wool." He said such uses could also create new markets for broader wool, if the opportunity was pursued. "It is certainly an issue that people are grappling with, in that how fine should they go to produce what the world wants," Mr Ralston said. "I feel a degree of frustration that there is this (commercial) property of wool that I have not seen anybody taking advantage of. "If this is left at the research stage and nothing is done (to commercialise it), the opportunity will be pigeoned holed and forgotten, like so many other things."

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