Contributed to New York Times blog post on flu-fighting fashion in Japan

The post: The Salaryman’s Armor Against Swine Flu

As our colleague Ariel Kaminer demonstrated recently, if you are really worried about catching the H1N1 swine flu, you can don a paper suit and wear a mask and goggles whenever you leave home — as long as you don’t mind being stared at. A lot.

This week a Japanese men’s wear company, Haruyama Trading, announced that it would soon start selling a far less obtrusive form of anti-flu armor: a business suit treated with a chemical which, the makers claim, has repelled the H1N1 virus in tests.

According to a news release from the company (available for download, in Japanese, on its Web site), the suit’s fibers are coated with the chemical titanium dioxide, commonly found in toothpaste. The compound acts as a photocatalyst, supposedly sparking a virus-destroying reaction when light hits the jacket or pants.

In 2006, our colleague Elisabetta Povoledo reported that titanium dioxide was already being used in self-cleaning coatings “because of its photocatalytic properties: sunlight sets off a chemical reaction that accelerates natural oxidation.”

A report from the business news agency Comtex explains:

Photocatalysts are known for breaking down bacteria and for helping fight against infections, eliminating odors. Haruyama says the photocatalyst broke down the spreading A H1N1 swine flu virus and was effective in warding off infection in in-house testing.

In a 2003 article about ways to stop the spread of SARS, published in the journal Symbiosis, Dr. Hwa A. Lim wrote:

Photocatalyst TiO2 can be used in the decomposition of NOx, the exhaust gas from automobile; in the removal of foul odor from acetaldehyde, anemone, trimethylamin, hydrogen-sulfides, methyl-melcaptan; in the prevention of dirt building in living environment; in treatment of water to remove dissolved organic compounds, chlorine, and other pollutants; as bacterial disinfectant; and as sunscreen.

Dr. Lim noted that when it is properly prepared, “the effectiveness of titanium dioxide as a disinfectant can go as high as 70%-99.9%.” The problem, he added, is that grinding the chemical to the ideal size for this use can be highly expensive, and “the effect is drastically reduced” when cheaper methods are used.

The Manichi Daily News reports that the suit will cost about $590 and “will go on sale from Saturday mainly at Haruyama stores across the country.” But, for a limited time, the suit will also be available for just over $200 at one location, a new store near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, which is reportedly the world’s busiest commuter hub.

The release of the suit is well-timed. The most recent “trend information” on the H1N1 swine flu from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare noted that the incidence of influenza in the country “was characterized as increasing.”

The Telegraph’s Tokyo correspondent Julian Ryall reported in his article on the suit that “A seven-year-old boy became the latest victim in Japan on Sept. 22, the youngest and 18th fatality from the disease here.”

Worldwide, there have been more than 4,100 deaths from the H1N1 influenza virus and 340,000 cases of the illness, according to a recent update from the World Health Organization.

There are no plans to sell the suits outside Japan, a spokesman with the company said, but they may be available online in the future.

Reporting was contributed by Hiroko Masuike.

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