New on-site asbestos detector improves work place safety

One hundred thousand people a year die from occupational exposure to airborne asbestos according to the World Health Organisation.   Tradespeople, such as roofers, plumbers and electricians working in older buildings inadvertently disturb asbestos and make the toxic fibres airborne – causing lung problems and early death when inhaled.

Today it is a banned material in most industrialised countries. But the threat of asbestos still lingers in the ceilings, walls and floors of old buildings where it was used extensively for its toughness, sound proofing and fire resistance properties.

This image shows light scattering from a thin fibre particle illuminated by a laser beam. In this case the fibre is not asbestos. Light patterns such as these can be used to identify the shape and orientation of airborne particles.  Credit: Paul Kaye University of Hertfordshire

This image shows light scattering from a thin fibre particle illuminated by a laser beam. In this case the fibre is not asbestos. Light patterns such as these can be used to identify the shape and orientation of airborne particles. Credit: Paul Kaye University of Hertfordshire

Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research have developed and tested the first portable, real-time airborne asbestos detector to provide a low-cost warning device to tradespeople.

By exploiting a unique magnetic property of asbestos, the new detection method provides on-site, real-time identification of the dangerous asbestos fibres. When airborne asbestos fibres are exposed to a magnetic field, they tend to align with the field. This alignment can be detected by analysing laser light scattering patterns from each airborne particle. 

‘Alert’ portable concept - the proposed design for the future commercialised portable asbestos detector. It is about 8” by 5” by 2” in size and was designed by researchers at the Instituto de Biomechánica de Valencia (IBV), Spain. Credit: Clara Solves, Instituto de Biomechánica de Valencia (IBV), Spain.

‘Alert’ portable concept – the proposed design for the future commercialised portable asbestos detector. It is about 8” by 5” by 2” in size and was designed by researchers at the Instituto de Biomechánica de Valencia (IBV), Spain. Credit: Clara Solves, Instituto de Biomechánica de Valencia (IBV), Spain.

Prototype units are undergoing field trials at various asbestos removal operations locations – with an estimated twelve to eighteen months to get the first production units for sale. 

The new detection method was developed as part of the FP7 project “ALERT”, with funding from the European Commission ‘Research for SMEs’ grant FP7-SME-2008-2.

The paper ‘Real-time detection of airborne asbestos by light scattering from magnetically re-aligned fibers’ is published in the Optical Society’s (OSA) journal Optics Express, Vol. 21, Issue 9, pp. 11356-11367 (2013).