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First Real-Time Asbestos Detector: A Step Toward a Safer Workplace

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was commonly used as insulation, Asbestos crystalline structureincorporated into cement and woven into firemen's protective clothing because of its toughness and fire-resistant properties. It continues to be mined and used today because of these properties. There is plenty of evidence to prove that lung cancers such as mesothelioma are caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.

Researchers from the University of Herfordshire in the U.K. developed and tested the first portable, real-time airborne asbestos detector. They hope the prototype will be commercialized in the U.K. and save the lives of factory workers, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and others in commercial and residential buildings. This detector would be an affordable way to quickly identify potential asbestos fibers in the air.

Currently, the most common way to identify airborne asbestos is to filter the air, count the number of fibers caught, and analyze the fibers with X-ray technology. This process requires expensive lab work and time, which is too long of a delay after initial direct exposure. An alternative method is a commercially available detector that is still unable to distinguish between asbestos and other less hazardous fibers such as mineral wool, gypsum and glass. However, the Hertfordshire team's new method can identify asbestos on-site by using laser-based technology to manipulate a unique magnetic property of the mineral.

Asbestos fibers align themselves with a magnetic field when it is exposed to the laser. The mineral is made up of complex crystalline structures that contain metals including silicon, magnesium and iron. U.S.-based scientist, Pedro Lilienfeld, patented a related approach in 1988, but due to technical difficulties, his work was not furthered.

The Hertfordshire team's new method works first by shining a laser beam at a stream of airborne particles. Light bounces off the particles forcing it to scatter into unique, complex patterns. This makes it possible to identify a particle's shape, size, structure, and orientation just by looking at the scattered light. After identifying the fibers, the detector carries them via airflow through a magnetic field. Then, it uses light scattering again on the opposite side to verify if fibers have aligned with the field.

Trials are now taking place at various locations where asbestos removal operations are underway. Best estimates show twelve to eighteen months to get the first production introduced onto the market at a targeted price of $700-$800 US. The intent is to bring the product to market at an affordable price, and make it easy for tradesmen to carry with them on the job. The Hertfordshire team hopes its new detector will help reduce the unnecessarily high annual death toll brought about by occupational asbestos exposure.

SOURCE: "First Portable, Real-Time Asbestos Detector Offers Promise Of Better Workplace Safety." Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 06 May 2013. Web. 08 May 2013. <>.

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