Home truths

Could the types of materials we use in our home have an impact on the billions of microorganisms that exist there? A first-of-its-kind study aims to find out.

Sonya Scott grew up on a sheep and beef farm in the Waikato. She worked as a rousey with her dad in the shearing sheds and wore thick woollen jerseys that were knitted by her mum. Now, as a senior scientist at AgResearch, she’s still working with wool, whether it’s researching the benefits of the protein keratin, the main component of wool, for use in cosmetics and wound care, or, most recently, studying the impact woollen and synthetic materials have on a home’s microbiome.

A microbiome is the group of microorganisms in a specific environment, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and other single-celled organisms. Scott has studied wool’s effect on the skin microbiome, but as part of a collaboration between AgResearch and the Campaign for Wool New Zealand, an industry group looking to promote the benefits of the natural fibre, that research has been extended to the home.

“We were asked to come up with some novel research ideas and we said, ‘What happens at home when it comes to wool versus synthetic?’ So we designed a robust experiment to test whether we can see any difference between the microbiomes.”

The experiment involved putting both wool and synthetic carpets and pillows in the homes of 20 volunteers. Some had kids, some had pets, so each house was different, but each material was exposed to the same conditions. That meant the team of researchers in Lincoln and Palmerston North was able to make a direct comparison.

The data has been collected and, after the DNA and metabolites—small molecules that the microorganisms leave behind—have been analysed, the results will be announced in the next few months.

The microbiome within wool may be better for human health than synthetic fibres, says AgResearch’s Sonya Scott.

The hypothesis is that the microbiome in the wool will promote human health and be better for home occupiers than plastic. If this is the case, it leads to new questions about the reasons for the difference and what those potential health benefits are. “And it’s a good way to get out of cleaning the house quite as often,” Scott laughs. “Fingers crossed.”

Hospitals are understandably wary of the microbiome, and cleaning products claim to offer germ-free environments, but that’s not possible in a home or on your own body—nor is it advisable. Nature abhors a vacuum, so “when there’s a gap, something moves in to fill it”, says Scott. A healthy microbiome is not about getting rid of everything, it’s about finding the right balance, and her own research suggests that natural materials are more likely to strike that balance.

Tom O’Sullivan, chairman of the Campaign for Wool NZ, says wool has a range of properties that make it more suitable for use in the home, such as moisture, toxin and odour absorption, temperature regulation and fire retardancy. It’s also biodegradable, so there are no microplastics breaking off, floating into the air and potentially being breathed in.

O’Sullivan says merino has become a popular fibre for clothing, but it uses ‘fine wool’ and this research is part of an effort by the industry to create more demand for ‘strong wool’ by proving its benefits to conscientious consumers around the globe who are looking for more natural solutions in the home—whether for mattresses, carpets, curtains, pillows or insulation.

Wool has a range of properties that make it more suitable for use in the home, such as moisture, toxin and odour absorption, temperature regulation and fire retardancy. Credit: Wright Wool

“There’s this whole movement of, ‘What have we done to the planet with all this plastic? What can we do to reverse this?’,” says Scott. “Wool is an incredible material and it’s got so many amazing properties. It’s a no-brainer, really.”

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