A new piece of easy-to-use technology may soon be available to quickly and accurately identify the presence of harmful asbestos fibres in the air, which can help avoid confusion and a potential health risk.

Prior to undertaking any building or refurbishment work a management survey is required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 to identify the possible presence of asbestos containing materials. However, inspection procedures and even some methods of detecting levels of asbestos fibre particles in the atmosphere of a premises have not always been carried out satisfactorily, if at all.

General air monitoring

Despite of continuing asbestos awareness campaigns to reinforce the continued risk of asbestos hidden in the fabric of many buildings, detection and air monitoring techniques can be often variable. When asbestos fibres were recently found at Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly, Wales, survey analysis was unable to distinguish between asbestos and other types of fibre particles such as paper, clothing and skin cells.

Whenever the presence of asbestos is suspected, different groups of people are immediately vulnerable to breathing in disturbed and airborne fibre dust, from the building contractors and tradesmen to the building occupants. The potential risk is considerably more acute when asbestos is regularly found in schools, nurseries and hospitals. Once asbestos fibres are inhaled, they permanently embed in the lung linings. Only after a long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years will the first signs ( e.g. breathlessness) of asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma or other asbestosis symptoms appear.

At present, air monitoring techniques collect all airborne fibres above a minimum size from a known volume of air via a filtering method, which provides only a general measure and does not determine the specific presence of asbestos fibres. Usually, a technique known as ‘fibre discrimination’, is required to precisely separate and quantify asbestos from non-asbestos fibres present. Air samples would then be sent to a laboratory to be analysed by X-ray diffraction, or by electron or infra-red spectroscopy.

Portable asbestos detection

While a previous method of “real-time” fibre detection on-site was unable to identify separate asbestos fibres from other airborne particle, at the University of Hertfordshire, a new laser-based system has been developed which they claim is “the world’s first portable, real-time detector of airborne asbestos.”

When a laser beam projected from the handheld device strikes a particle, the light is distributed in a pattern unique to the particle, which determines the shape, size, and orientation – and can also distinguish fibres. While this type of analysis is also available in existing fibre detectors, the laser beam also passes through a magnetic field to determine if specifically asbestos fibres are present by analysing the resulting unique patterns.

Prototypes are now being currently tested and it is expected that the first production models may be available for use by the construction industry within 12 to 18 months.

According to Health & Safety Executive, there could be around four million properties in England and Wales still containing hidden asbestos material. Around 1.8 million people, including construction industry workers, can still be exposed to asbestos every year.