Wednesday, September 16, 1998 Published at 18:17 GMT 19:17 UK
Sleep tight, breathe easy
While you sleep, they eat
A bedding material that kills the tiny creatures that can cause an asthma attack has been developed by the UK textile company Courtaulds.
The novel fabric contains substances that are harmless to humans but lethal to the house dust mite, reports New Scientist Magazine.
The creatures live in bedding and carpets and feed off flakes of human skin. It is their droppings which, when inhaled, can trigger the breathing problems of asthmatics.
The mites can be controlled with powerful pesticides or by sealing mattresses in plastic covers. But the new material - which can be used to make sheets, duvets, pillows, mattresses and covers - kills the creatures by starving them to death.
Scientists at Cambridge and Nottingham Universities discovered that the mites carry a fungus on their bodies which pre-digests the skin flakes. Without the fungus, the flakes are indigestible.
David Service, research manager at Courtaulds, told New Scientist: "It's like us trying to eat wood."
The team reasoned that if they could destroy the fungus they would kill the mites.
They tested their theory using a bed containing a fungicide, strewn with flakes of human skin and infested with mites.
On the basis of the research, Courtaulds have decided to spike cotton and other fabrics with a fungicide similar to that used in athlete's foot treatment, incorporating it into the fibres as they are spun.
"It's a slow release mechanism and can't be washed out," said Service.
The company has launched the material and is actively looking for major retail outlets. However, it is keeping the identity of the fungicide secret until the patents are granted.
The National Asthma Campaign, which estimates that 3.4 million Britons suffer from the disease, said it looked forward to evaluating the bedding, but warned against over-optimism.
"It's good news if it works," a spokeswoman said. However, she added that, for maximum effect, curtains, toys and carpets would need to be treated too.