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New tool created to combat airborne asbestos on worksites

Legacy asbestos in buildings is as much a problem in the United Kingdom as it is in Canada. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England have given construction workers a new tool to detect airborne asbestos on any worksite in real time, without the need to send air samples to a laboratory for testing.

The sensor, which uses lasers and magnets to identify asbestos particles, will be commercially available in the U.K. in 2014 under the trade name Asbestos Alert.

A team of researchers, including Paul Kaye, a professor at the Centre for Atmospheric and Instrumentation Research at the University of Hertfordshire, began working on the concept in the late 1990s.

“Our field of research included using laser light-scattering to identify airborne biological particles, such as spores and fungi,” says Kaye. “Somebody suggested that we might look at a way of identifying asbestos fibres using this technology.”

The concept was simple—and effective. All types of airborne particles are drawn into the device in single file. Laser light-scattering makes the particles visible and allows identification of any particles that are fibres by their shape and angle of orientation in the laser beam. The fibres then pass between two magnets. Since asbestos fibres try to align with the magnetic field, a second laser detects this change in angle and differentiates asbestos fibres from non-asbestos fibres such as glass or gypsum that are not influenced by the magnetic field.

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