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Because asbestos is a danger to human health, it is important to locate it in homes and on construction sites. Homeowners and construction workers need to be aware of asbestos before tackling projects that could expose it and contaminate the air. Until recently, the most accurate method to detect asbestos was to collect samples of air and materials and examine them under a microscope. This process is lengthy and involves sending samples to a laboratory for examination. Now, researchers and technology companies are developing portable devices to accurately detect asbestos fibers, distinguishing them from other fibers in the field. These devices could revolutionize the process, offering immediate feedback about the presence of this dangerous mineral.
Traditional Microscopy for Asbestos Detection
It is important to detect asbestos because exposure to microscopic fibers can be extremely harmful to human health. Over time, exposure to asbestos can lead to illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer. It is particularly important for anyone performing maintenance, repair, or renovation on older buildings to know if asbestos is present on a job site before work begins. If they know asbestos is there, these workers can take necessary precautions and wear proper safety gear. Even small amounts of asbestos can cause catastrophic harm that usually doesn’t manifest until years after the exposure.
Microscopy is traditionally used to detect asbestos in building materials. For this process, a sample is collected, prepared, and set to a lab. In the lab, the sample is examined under a microscope. Any fibers will be closely examined to determine if they are asbestos or some other material. The process is time intensive and not completely accurate. Obtaining a sample can be risky, requiring a respirator, special packaging techniques, and mailing materials. In some cases, a certified asbestos abatement professional must do the sampling, requiring more time and money.
There have been recent developments in technology that can be used to detect on-site asbestos. These developments make the process easier to perform and provide faster results. Instead of requiring a sample and lab investigation, workers can use handheld devices to detect asbestos directly on site. As the technology advances, these devices should also provide more accurate, less expensive results.
Spectroscopy is the main technology involved in handheld asbestos detection. This analytical technique uses the interaction between light and matter to determine what elements a material is made of and in what ratios. Different elements and molecules reflect light in characteristic ways. A spectroscope machine measures that reflection so unknown substances can be identified.
Different spectroscopes use different types of light. For example, some devices use X-rays. The material scatters the X-rays and a detector reads the pattern to determine if it contains asbestos. Other handheld devices use infrared light. Both methods are proven to detect asbestos and can even distinguish between the six different types of asbestos.
Detecting Asbestos with a Magnetic Field
Spectroscopy is not a new technology, though handheld devices are a relatively new development. However, this is not the only detection technology available. Recent technology uses lasers and magnets to distinguish asbestos fibers from other building materials like gypsum and fiberglass.
The University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom is responsible for developing this technology. Thanks to this new sensor, it is now possible to detect even low concentrations of asbestos in the air. This is a significant development for safety since it is airborne asbestos that can cause extreme health problems.
Unlike fiberglass and other common building materials, asbestos will align with a magnetic field. These new handheld devices first shine a laser on the air to be tested, identifying even a single fiber in the air. Airborne fibers are then pulled into a detector with magnets. A second laser detects asbestos fibers that line up in the magnetic field.
These devices provide fast and accurate results. They are expected to be reasonably priced, allowing companies to easily provide their workers with this useful technology. Even plumbers and electricians performing minor repairs can use this device to sample air before, during, and after projects.
Having new and better technologies to detect asbestos in a variety of settings is important to human health. Although there are regulations limiting the use of asbestos, it is still present in many places. Any building built before the late 1970s could contain asbestos. Having detection technology in hand revolutionizes the way we detect this harmful mineral. As technology continues to evolve, these devices will become easier to use, more affordable, and more accurate. Both homeowners and construction workers will benefit from these new technologies.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.