ALERT’s project coordinator Alan Archer says the tool is expected to 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 change in the way the world addresses the dangers of asbestos, with the ultimate goal of saving lives,” he states.
Once embraced as the “miracle mineral” for its tough, flexible, fireproof qualities, asbestos is now seen as a health hazard. It causes lung diseases like the malignant form of cancer called mesothelioma. 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. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 125 million people worldwide encounter white asbestos in the workplace, while the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 100,000 workers worldwide die each year from all asbestos-related diseases.
ALERT project picks up research from the 1990s by the University of Hertfordshire, UK, which found a way to detect asbestos fibres through a new light-scattering technique. At the time, the project stalled as it was seen as too costly, but the ALERT consortium used recent technological innovations and added them to existing research to build a low-cost, portable detector. “Our challenge was 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 on 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.
Archer 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 tool, 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,” concludes Archer.