New tool created to combat airborne asbestos on worksites

New tool created to combat airborne asbestos on worksites

Legacy asbestos in buildings is as much a problem in the United Kingdom as it is in Canada. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England have given construction workers a new tool to detect airborne asbestos on any worksite in real time, without the need to send air samples to a laboratory for testing.

The sensor, which uses lasers and magnets to identify asbestos particles, will be commercially available in the U.K. in 2014 under the trade name Asbestos Alert.

A team of researchers, including Paul Kaye, a professor at the Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research at the University of Hertfordshire, began working on the concept in the late 1990s.

“Our field of research included using laser light-scattering to identify airborne biological particles, such as spores and fungi,” says Kaye. “Somebody suggested that we might look at a way of identifying asbestos fibres using this technology.”

Laser flare

The concept was simple—and effective. All types of airborne particles are drawn into the device in single file. Laser light-scattering makes the particles visible and allows identification of any particles that are fibres by their shape and angle of orientation in the laser beam. The fibres then pass between two magnets. Since asbestos fibres try to align with the magnetic field, a second laser detects this change in angle and differentiates asbestos fibres from non-asbestos fibres such as glass or gypsum that are not influenced by the magnetic field.

“The technique was successful,” says Kaye. “But the test unit was too large and too computationally intensive and the equipment was too expensive to reproduce commercially. We let the research go dormant.”

Fast-forward to 2009 when a U.K. company, Select Group Ltd., which specializes in selling tools and safety gear to the construction trades, contacted the team regarding the device.

“They were constantly being asked for a device that could detect airborne asbestos on the job site,” says Kaye. “They’d come across our patent and were keen to see us get back to it. Given that there’s now more computing power in a mobile phone than a desktop computer of 15 years ago, we realized the device now had the potential to be both smaller and economically viable. The magnetic field is supplied by two rare earth magnets that cost about 50 Canadian cents each and the circuits and processors were now orders of magnitude less expensive.”

Select Group set up a European consortium of companies, which raised funding to develop the technology. The Hertfordshire team produced a half-dozen working prototypes that were sent to various construction sites for real world testing by companies specializing in asbestos remediation.

“We wanted to test its ability to detect asbestos fibres, but we also wanted to know the ergonomic factors involved in using the device,” says Kaye. “We wanted to know how large it could be, and how robust it needed to be to survive working conditions. These aspects were determined by another consortium member based at the Biomechanical Institute in Valencia, Spain.”

The final working design will be small enough to be carried by any construction worker or tradesperson and can be left activated at the worksite, where air is passively scanned for asbestos.

Alert Detector Concept

“When the machine alerts the user with an audible or visual signal, it’s 99 per cent certain that the air around you contains asbestos,” says Kaye. “At that point, the worker can choose to either put on a mask or pack up the tools and leave the work area. I know which one I’d do.”

Kaye says the Alert unit can detect asbestos fibres down to about 5 to 15 microns in length. These fibres tend to get trapped in the alveoli where they can trigger a carcinogenic reaction that may lead to mesothelioma over the space of many years. He notes that carrying an asbestos detector may be particularly important for those who are least likely to believe they’re exposed to asbestos.

“In the U.K., a surprising number of surveyors were among the fatalities from mesothelioma,” he says. “That’s probably because they tend to perform surveys in existing buildings without using personal protective equipment.”

For more information on Alert contact The Select Group:

Article: As featured in Daily Commercial News Online (Canada)

Written by: PETER KENTER (Correspondent)

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