ALERT - An asbestos detector that could save thousands of lives
- Date: Monday 10th December 2012
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Once embraced as the “miracle mineral” for its tough, flexible, fireproof qualities, asbestos is now seen as a killer. It is blamed for the deaths of thousands from lung diseases like the aggressive, cruel chest cancer mesothelioma, and is currently banned in 54 countries. Yet asbestos is still with us. Exposure from legacy asbestos products like insulation is the leading cause of work related deaths worldwide, and until now there has been no way of detecting the lethal presence of asbestos fibres in the air.
That is changing thanks to a European research project to develop an asbestos detection device. ALERT, a consortium of 11 research partners across Europe, is building the first real-time, portable detector of asbestos fibres in the air. The low-cost ALERT Rapid Asbestos Detection (ARAD) tool, which could be the size of a hand-held drill, will enable construction workers and surveyors to test for the mineral's presence in building and demolition sites.
ALERT, which received €1.78 million in European Commission funding for its three-year research project, is due to run until August 2013. ALERT’s exploitation manager Alan Archer says the tool will instantly give potentially lifesaving information about the levels of asbestos to people working on building and demolition sites, surveying premises, and even firefighters. “We hope this instrument will prompt a major step-change in the way the world addresses the dangers of asbestos, with the ultimate goal of saving lives,” he says.
ALERT picks up research from the late 1990s by the University of Hertfordshire that found a way to detect asbestos fibres through a light-scattering technique. At the time, the research stalled as it was seen as too costly. “Our challenge was to work with Hertfordshire to take this science and turn it into a practical and affordable instrument capable of alerting people to the potential presence of this lethal airborne carcinogen,” says Archer, who is also the Managing Director of the UK-based product development company Select Group.
Archer says the project has potentially immense implications. “There are no safe levels of asbestos exposure and there are currently no portable real-time airborne detectors in the market,” he says. Until now, the only test possible was a laboratory analysis, a process that can take days and wastes valuable time, often leaving those working in asbestos-laden buildings at risk of exposure.
Although asbestos is banned in Europe, this is not a health issue of the past. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 125 million people encounter white asbestos in the workplace, while the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from all asbestos-related diseases.
Millions of homes across Europe were built when asbestos was a widely used material, and as long as people are still living and working in these buildings asbestos remains a health hazard. “Whilst half the world has banned the use of asbestos, they face the legacy of eradicating existing asbestos,” Archer says. “The other half of the world is still using asbestos, making this deadly threat a problem for the world for many years to come.”
Alan is currently working with third parties to develop new prototypes capable of addressing specific market sectors such as demolition, emergency services, asbestos removal and hazardous waste sites. “With ALERT, we can give 30 million European workers a means of detecting asbestos the moment it is disturbed, allowing them to protect themselves and avoid becoming one of the 100,000 people worldwide killed each year by exposure to asbestos,” Archer says.