The case for clean socks

The next time you venture outdoors, make sure you wear clean socks.

The next time you venture outdoors, make sure you wear clean socks.

No, not because you might be in an accident, as your mother might have warned you (about always wearing clean underwear). Clean socks will make you less attractive to mosquitoes.

Scientists have discovered that mosquitoes love smelly socks; the ranker the better. And we owe this to a Dutch scientist who stood naked in a dark room filled with mosquitoes recording what part of the body those blood-sucking little buggers were most attracted to. It was his smelly feet.

Stinky socks are being applied in a unique, pungent project in Tanzania to fight malaria, funded in part by the Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada. It’s results could have worldwide applications in controlling mosquitoes in general.

Take Canada, for example. The onslaught of mosquitoes in many regions this year has ranked among the hot topics for discussion, along with weird weather that’s brought floods, tornadoes and buckets upon buckets of rain and hail.

While malaria is not a major health concern here, mosquitoes carrying the potentially deadly West Nile virus and event the H1N1 virus most certainly are. Armies of mosquitoes with troops numbering gazillions upon gazillions have launched a relentless attack on local fronts.

The wave of water-saturated storms across Canada have left standing water ponds not seen in years. It’s a five-star environment ripe for clouds of mosquitoes to flourish.

In some areas, short of taking a bath in DEET, the bug-repelling chemical used in all top-selling sprays, it’s almost impossible to fend off the skeeter brigades. And even bathing in DEET, which is not advisable for obvious health concerns, human sweat quickly waters down the repelling strength of the chemical.

Municipalities have attempted to control mosquito populations over the years using chemical- or biological-control methods, concentrating efforts on standing waters. But this year, given the amount of standing water, one has a better chance of throwing a rock at the moon and hitting it than bringing those blood-sucking armies under control.

Back to the raunchy socks. Ever wonder why, no matter how much repellent you cake on your body, there’s an army of tiny mosquitoes conducting ground-level, stealth-like attacks ( on your ankles?

It’s your stinky feet, concluded Dutch scientist Bart Knols, who stood naked in that mosquito-filled dark room as a human target 15 years ago. Since then, scientists struggled to put those findings to use, according to science journals.

Enter Dr. Fedros Okumu, head of the malaria research project at Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute, who discovered the stinky-sock smell — which he mimics using a blend of eight rank chemicals — lures mosquitoes by the hoards to traps, where they are poisoned.

“The odour of human feet attracted four times as many mosquitoes,” Okumu found. “And the poison (in the traps) can kill upwards of 95 per cent of the mosquitoes.”

While the battle against malaria has been gaining ground indoors through various preventive measures, it’s the mosquitoes outside attracting concern.

“This is the first time that we are focusing on controlling mosquitoes outside of homes,” said Okumu, a Kenyan whose been ill with malaria several times. “The global eradication of malaria will not be possible without new technologies.”

This project wants to know how best to use the poison traps and if they can be produced affordably.

There’s no magic bullet in controlling mosquitoes but innovative thinking such as the stinky-sock study opens new windows and brings in a breath of fresh air on the problem.

Peter A. Singer, head of Grand Challenges Canada, says of the malaria project: “It’s bold, it’s innovative and it has the potential for big impact. . . . Who would have thought that a lifesaving technology was lurking in your laundry basket?”

So the next time you’re on the golf course, in the garden or out walking, wear clean socks. Make mom proud.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19, in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020. Alberta is set to join three other provinces in exploring the feasibility of small modular reactors as a clean energy option. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Four provinces to sign memorandum of understanding to explore small nuclear reactors

Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick sign memorandum of understanding

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European and NATO allies about Afghanistan, Ukraine and other matters. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool via AP)
US co-ordinates Afghanistan pullout with NATO withdrawal

Attacks on U.S. troops have largely paused but that Taliban attacks on the Afghans increased

Demonstrators take cover from crowd-dispersal munitions from police outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department while protesting the shooting death of Daunte Wright, late Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Minnesota shooting charging decision awaited, protests go on

Police and protesters faced off once again after nightfall Tuesday

Storage tanks are shown at the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery in Detroit on April 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Sancya
U.S. oil comprised 77 per cent of Canada’s foreign oil imports last year: regulator

U.S. absorbed 96 per cent of Canadian oil exports last year

House prices in Alberta are going up in many communities, reports the ATB. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy)
Alberta’s house prices are on the rise: ATB

Supply has been low, relative to demand

A prairie fire in the Burnt Lake district. (Photo by Bert Fors via Red Deer Archives)
Michael Dawe: Fires of spring 1931 in central Alberta

Central Alberta has just come through a relatively warm and dry winter… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Opinion: Boris Johnson is to blame for what’s happening in Ireland

Twenty-three years of peace in Northern Ireland, after a sectarian war that… Continue reading

Canada's Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, fom left, celebrate after winning women's gold medal match against Brazil's team at the Beach Volley Worldtour Major Series, in Vienna, Austria on August 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ronald Zak
Canada’s world champion beach volleyball duo finally getting games before Tokyo

Canada’s world champion beach volleyball duo finally getting games before Tokyo

Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch (24) gets fouled by Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Bogdanovic, Capela lead Hawks past Raptors 107-103

Bogdanovic, Capela lead Hawks past Raptors 107-103

Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship in the world. Photo provided and colourized by Jiri Ferdinand.
QUIZ: How much do you know about the world’s most famous shipwreck?

Titanic sank 109 years ago today, after hitting an iceberg

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu throws to a New York Yankees batter during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Ryu sharp into 7th, Semien homers as Blue Jays top Yanks 7-3

Ryu sharp into 7th, Semien homers as Blue Jays top Yanks 7-3

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau (13) scores the game winning goal on Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender David Rittich (33) in overtime NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Gaudreau scores in overtime, Flames beat Maple Leafs 3-2

Gaudreau scores in overtime, Flames beat Maple Leafs 3-2

Jim Bullock, Vicki Pappas and Randy Waples off to Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame

Jim Bullock, Vicki Pappas and Randy Waples off to Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame

Most Read