Reports late last year revealed that researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have developed a new tool that can detect airborne asbestos on any worksite in real time without the need to send off samples to a laboratory for analysis. This is good news for the construction industry and contractors all over the UK as the dangers of asbestos are still very real, despite the all out ban on asbestos use in the UK in 1999.
Buildings constructed since the year 2000 are asbestos free. However, this means that most of the buildings in the UK (including homes and public buildings) contain what is sometimes described as ‘legacy asbestos’. Legacy asbestos is asbestos used in the construction or refurbishment of buildings before the year 2000. Whenever work is done on these buildings, there could be asbestos present which would present a hazard to the people doing the work and the people using the building. This means that the detection of asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACMs) is vital to ensure safety.
The new sensor developed by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire uses lasers and magnets to identify asbestos particles and will be commercially available in the UK this year under the trade name Asbestos Alert. The researchers began work on this concept back in the late 1990s and the field of research included using laser light-scattering in order to identify airborne biological particles (such as spores and fungi). It was then decided to try using the technology in order to identify asbestos fibres.
All types of airborne particles are drawn into the Asbestos Alert device in single file. The laser light-scattering technology ensures that the particles are visible so that identification of any particles that are fibres by their shape and angle or orientation in the laser beam is possible. The fibres are then passed between two magnets and because asbestos fibres will align with the magnetic field, this enables a second laser to detect the change in angle and differentiate asbestos fibres from non-asbestos fibres (like glass or gypsum). The research on this remained dormant for some time because the detection unit was large and the equipment too expensive to reproduce on a commercial basis.
However, in 2009 work on this began again in earnest. Developments in technology and computing have resulted in the potential for smaller and economically viable devices to be developed. With a European consortium of companies raising the funding necessary to develop the technology, the Hertfordshire research team produced some working prototypes to test on construction sites.
As well as testing the device’s ability to detect asbestos fibres, there were also ergonomic considerations to be taken into account, such as how large the device could be and how sturdy it would have to be to survive conditions on construction sites. The final design is small enough to be carried by a tradesperson or construction worker and can be left at the worksite, scanning the air for asbestos fibres. The alert is delivered both audibly and with visual signals and is coming soon to a construction site near you.