With World Health Day celebrated only last week (it takes place on April 7th each year) , it is perhaps timely to consider some of the many ways in which nonwovens contribute to human health and that of the environment.
Single-use nonwoven-based facemasks, gowns and drapes, for example, are well-proven in hospitals and other medical environments as extremely effective tools in fighting healthcare-associated infections (HCAIs).
Patient safety is now top of the agenda in every European hospital, where one in ten patients is reported to be impacted by HCAIs.
The direct cost of these infections is now €7 billion each year and €1.2 billion is attributable to surgical site infections, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). In orthopaedic surgery, such an infection can prolong the hospital stay by two weeks, increasing health care costs by more than 300%.
The key advantages of such single-use nonwoven-based protective articles include the fact that they can simply be bought, used and then disposed of, while for every single surgery, they are new, clean and unused every time, providing confidence and security.
They also give hospitals the flexibility to choose the preferred systems for every procedure – drapes and gowns can be chosen from a range of models to ensure that they provide the right level of protection at their intended use. In addition, there are no hidden costs such as laundering, repairing, re-sterilization or re-packaging, so the cost of single-use drapes and gowns are transparent for every procedure.
In a bid to further raise hygiene standards within hospitals, UK-based NIRI, (the Nonwovens Innovation and Research Institute) has recently developed Surfaceskins – self-disinfecting devices designed to be placed over metal door plates to disinfect the hands of visitors and patients alike.
Surfaceskins are capable of killing 90% of germs on contact, and have been created as a cost-effective solution for what is considered a blind-spot for the cross-contamination of germs within the medical sector.
Three separate nonwoven layers make up the pad. Below the protective top sheet, the alcohol reservoirs consist of vertically-lapped nonwoven webs folded in on themselves in a corrugated fashion, to produce thermally bonded three-dimensional structures. The alcohol is dispersed through tiny valves onto the outer fabric when pressure is applied and each pad can be used continuously for seven days.
As such, Surfaceskins offer a new way to reduce the risk of the spread of bacteria and viruses in hospital environments and other settings where frequent contact with doors can undermine hand hygiene.
Nonwovens also play active roles in protecting people in times of epidemics, with facemasks, single-use garments, gloves and shoe covers essential components of the personal protective equipment (PPE).
These products have been crucial in the fight against the recent Ebola virus, as well as the 2003 SARS outbreak, the wave of Bird Flu that swept through south-east Asia in 2005 and during the Swine Flu panic of 2009 – when the demand for facemasks, in particular, exploded on a global scale.
Equally important, is the role that nonwovens can play in accelerating wound healing through advanced dressings, often containing active ingredients such as silver with therapeutic properties.
In a notable development in this field, Germany’s Freudenberg now combines nonwovens with foam to significantly improve the absorption and retention properties of wound dressings.
Freudenberg and other companies also manufacture nonwovens made from chitosan – a biopolymer derived from the shells of sea crustaceans – which is effective at stopping bleeding and helps wounds heal more quickly.
It is of particular value in the treatment of people suffering from chronic wounds caused by vein and arterial disease. Freudenberg’s highly-complex products for such treatments include chitosan fibres in combination with hydroactive nonwovens, which make a significant contribution to the healing process and are already proving their worth in practice.
As filter media, nonwovens also make an often underestimated contribution to the demands for both purer air and cleaner water.
Concern over the quality of air inside buildings is now receiving the attention that outside air received in the 1970s, and the health impacts of impure air in working environments is being addressed at national levels.
In Europe particularly, nonwoven filter media in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) applications is proving crucial to ensuring clean air, and their application is helping new buildings to meet the European Union’s “zero-energy” requirements which will take effect in 2021.
The EU defines zero energy buildings (ZEBs) as residential or commercial buildings that have a zero net energy consumption and also generate zero carbon emissions.
As such, ZEBs require effective ventilation supplying high indoor air quality, which in turn will require the use of high-quality air filters that are also changed on a frequent basis.
A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialised cities.
The advantages of removing pollutants from air streams are very real, and in addition to minimising allergies and illness for occupants, filter media protect possessions and assets from dust build-up.
Fine fibres are essential for the removal of small particles – typically, the contaminants encountered in HVAC applications are in very small concentrations and are in the 20 to 100-micron size range – and the nonwovens industry has the solutions.
Global water consumption continues to increase as populations grow, but in many parts of the world, people have no running water and are forced to drink directly from contaminated rivers, wells and streams. These can be filled with bacteria, parasites and viruses that can make children extremely sick with diarrhoea and in the developing world, can often lead to cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery.
Third-world countries have long been in need of simple, safe and effective decontamination systems. Boiling is the only readily available method, but it must be done properly, and in many parts of the world, water isn’t cleaned at all.
The availability of clean water, however, is not only a problem in deprived parts of the world. Higher demand and changing weather patterns in industrialized countries are also causing shortages.
As a consequence, wastewater is increasingly being regarded as a potential source of clean water, and filtration can provide a number of solutions for its reclamation.
The nonwovens industry has been making tremendous strides in the development of more effective media for water filtration recently, notably at an advanced level, through the employment of nano-sized fibres in sophisticated web structures. At the same time, it is making basic, affordable water filtration systems readily available to those who need them.