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Handheld Technology Innovating Asbestos Detection in the Field

Finding asbestos in homes, on construction sites, and on other types of job sites is important for human health. Workers and homeowners need to know about the presence of asbestos before tackling any work that could expose it and cause fibers of the mineral to come loose and contaminate the air. In some places, asbestos may already be in the air.

Until recently, the most accurate way to determine if asbestos fibers were present was to collect samples of air and other materials and to examine any fibers under a microscope. This means sending the sample to a laboratory and waiting for results. Now, researchers and technology companies are working on portable devices that should be able to accurately detect asbestos fibers and distinguish them from other types of fibers, right on site and in the field. This could revolutionize the speed and ease with which the presence of asbestos is found.

Traditional Microscopy for Asbestos Detection

Because being exposed to asbestos fibers can be so harmful to human health, causing illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer, testing materials and air in any location it may be present is important. Various types of workers, but especially those doing maintenance, repairs, or renovations to older buildings, need to know if asbestos is on the job site before beginning so they can take necessary precautions and wear the right safety gear. Even small amounts of asbestos can cause catastrophic harm years after the exposure.
The traditional way of doing detecting asbestos in building materials is to use microscopy. Workers have to collect a sample of the material in question, prepare it, send it to a lab, and wait for the results. In the lab, the sample is viewed under a microscope. If fibers are found, they must be examined to determine if they are from asbestos or some other material. This takes time and is not 100 percent accurate. The process is also risky to the worker who has to collect the sample using a respirator and special techniques for packaging and mailing the materials. In some cases a certified asbestos abatement professional must be called in to do the sampling, which takes more time and costs more money.

Handheld Spectroscopy

There have been more recent developments in the technology used to detect on-site asbestos that is making the process faster and less complicated. Instead of collecting samples and sending them to a lab, workers can use these handheld devices to detect asbestos at a work site. As the technology advances, these devices should make detection not only faster, but more accurate and less expensive.

One of the technologies behind handheld asbestos detection is spectroscopy. This is an analytical technique that 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 is a machine that measures that reflection so that unknown substances can be identified. Spectroscopy can be used to identify the characteristic minerals of asbestos.

Different handheld spectroscopes used to detect asbestos use different types of light. Some devices use X-rays, for instance. 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 have been proven in studies to be able to detect asbestos and even to be able to distinguish between the six different types of asbestos. Being able to use this technology with a small, on-site, handheld device will make asbestos detection easier and safer.

Detecting Asbestos with a Magnetic Field

Spectroscopy is not a new technology. It has been used for many years and has a lot of different applications. Being able to use it in a handheld form is more recent technology, but this is not the only type of detection technology being put into the hands of workers to revolutionize asbestos detection. An even newer type of device is using lasers and magnets to quickly distinguish between fibers of asbestos and other building materials, like gypsum and fiberglass.

This latest device is being developed by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and its importance cannot be overstated. They developed a new sensor that uses the magnetic nature of asbestos to make possible to detect even low concentrations of asbestos in the air. This is especially important for safety because it is the airborne fibers that people can inhale without realizing it and that cause health problems over time.

Asbestos fibers, unlike fiberglass and other common materials, will align with a magnetic field. This new handheld device works by first shining a laser on the fibers in the air to be tested, which helps to identify even a single fiber of any material in the air. The detected fibers are then pulled into a detector with magnets. A second laser detects any fibers that have lined up in the magnetic field, which are the asbestos fibers.

The device has already been proven by the researchers to be accurate and effective, as well as quick. It is also expected to be reasonably priced so that companies can provide their workers with this useful technology. Even workers doing minor repairs and work, like plumbers or electricians in residential homes, 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 so important to human health. Although regulations have been put in place to limit and regulate the use of asbestos, it is still lurking in so many places. Any home or building from before the late 1970s could have asbestos in it. Relying on asbestos contractors provides security and safety, but it is also costly and takes time. To have the technology in hand and on site is revolutionary to how we detect and protect people from this harmful mineral. As the technology continues to evolve these devices should become even easier to use, more affordable, quicker, and even more accurate. Workers and homeowners alike can benefit from these technologies.

Page edited by 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.

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