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Booster Shots

Days-Old Socks That Smell as Fresh as a Daisy

June 17, 2002|ROSIE MESTEL

Life is busy. Every second counts. So wouldn't it be nice not to have to change one's socks for days and days on end? (Of course, we all know people who find this eminently achievable.)

Happily, scientists have found time to tackle the smelly-sock problem in between sequencing the human genome and cataloging sundry fundamental particles. They've invented a fabric impregnated with a chemical that kills the bacteria responsible for sock odor. You really could wear these socks for days, though the fabric inventor, Gang Sun of UC Davis, isn't specifically recommending this.

That, in any case, is the least of what technologists have invented, or are working on, in the handy-clothing line. Of course, it will be some time before shirts, slacks and sweaters will pick up groceries, file taxes or take the dog for a walk. But until that day, there could be bras that send medical alerts. Vests that monitor your vitals. Even shirts that nourish you.

Here's a sampling of clever clothes being cooked up in labs (most still under development):

* First (to put everyone out of their suspense), smart bras. British scientists have devised one, now being tested, that can detect abnormal cells in the breast, including malignant ones. Electrodes send little electrical currents to the breast, allowing doctors to scan it from various angles and map the site of suspicious tissues.

That bra wouldn't be for regular, around-the-town wear, but another kind of bra would. The Techno Bra (another British invention--what is it about Brits and bras?) senses sudden jumps in heart rate that could mean somebody's mugging you. A global positioning satellite device then sends your location to the police.

* Self-cleaning clothes. These second cousins to antibacterial socks would hold carefully chosen bacteria to chew up sweat and odor-causing chemicals. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth are still perfecting ways to get the bacteria into fibers. But they envision a time when specially engineered bugs would not only chew up clothing contaminants but ooze out antiseptics for bandages or waterproof coatings.

* Garments known tastefully as Under-Ease. These special underclothes (already being marketed) protect the wearer from the embarrassment of flatulence. Under-Ease's Pueblo, Colo., inventor was inspired to design the pants because his wife had irritable bowel syndrome and often suffered from such bouts. Nothing fancy about these pants--just replaceable charcoal filters in the seat that capture smelly hydrogen sulfide gas.

* Inflatable suits. One such suit, concocted by a scientist at the University of Tokyo, is covered with inflatable regions that act as "muscles," giving a frail person a little extra strength. The "muscles" expand when pressure sensors in the suit signal that it would be helpful. Another--designed yet again by Japanese scientists--works rather like air bags in cars. When a worker wearing such a life jacket falls suddenly, the suit inflates, protecting the vulnerable waist, neck and spine.

* Nutritious garb. Not getting your vitamins? From Japan (one more time) comes this strange invention: a fabric impregnated with a vitamin C-related chemical. T-shirts could contain about two lemons-worth of this chemical, explains the company blurb--enough to survive 30 washings. The chemical would get absorbed by the skin, turning into bona fide vitamin C as it does so. No longer would anyone have to go through the hassle of eating an orange.

* Smart shirts. Fibers in the SmartShirt, devised by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are threaded with a spaghetti-like mesh of optical fibers, allowing the shirt to sense any number of bodily vital signs: heart rate, temperature, breathing rate and more. Plus, its inventors say, it could be easily adapted to detect things such as penetration by a bullet and levels of oxygen and gases. And the shirt can even be laundered. (In my book, this is a must; if I have to send it to the cleaners, I'm not buying it.) SmartShirt will be launched in about a year, says a spokesperson for the company Sensatex. Another garment that detects vital signs, the LifeShirt, developed by VivomMetrics, is already FDA-approved for clinical use.

For those who get chilly at night or who like to climb chilly mountains, there are already jackets, socks and bed linen made of fabric that senses the temperature and releases stored-up heat when it gets cold. For people with asthma, there's bedding with chemicals that kill dust mites. The Army is working on clothing that would change its color like a chameleon, detect wounds and gases, alert the soldier's commander--even exude medicines. And on and on.

As the fashion mavens say: It's not enough to fall in love with a dress on a rack. When you put it on, it should work for you.


If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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