Assure 360

The fifth European Asbestos Forum (EAF) lived very much up to its billing, with a breathless conference programme featuring 21 international speakers. But, as I’ve said before, what sets Dr Yvonne Waterman’s EAF apart is that it is so much more than a conference. The clue to why is in its name – forum.

The conference itself was on Friday 11 November, but the wider event got under way the day before, with a field trip to the Asbestos Museum and the Asbetter asbestos denaturing plant.

The first of these was absolutely fascinating: a private collection showing off a fraction of the vast number of products that have, and still do contain asbestos. From fake (fireproof) Christmas snow, through moulded cement ceiling tiles that looked like carved wooden panels straight out of a Jacobean mansion, to toy Eternet trucks with real asbestos cement pipes! Good Lord.

Next for us was the Asbetter factory. Asbetter is an innovative firm that is attempting to develop commercially viable means to destroy asbestos. Asbestos is known to dissolve in high alkaline solutions. Cement itself is strongly alkaline. Therefore if you add water to a ground up cement debris and heat the resulting suspension (to approx. 90oC), you end up with a cementitious slurry with ostensibly no asbestos fibres remaining.

Such a simple solution would seem to be witchcraft – but the science is sound, and Asbetter has scanning electron microscope (SEM) data to suggest that all of the fibres have dissolved. The company does, however, face challenges in ramping its current pilot plant up to a full commercial outfit:

  • SEM is not necessarily the right technique for finding fibres in highly milled material, as near-invisible, tremendously thin fibres may go unobserved
  • Grinding up the cement in hoppers present its own fibre release issues
  • The initial packages of asbestos waste aren’t limited just to cement, but also used overalls, plastic, metal fixings and wood. All of these will remain as contaminated waste that still needs to be disposed of
  • The process produces a slurry that is highly alkaline. Unless Asbetter can sell that back to the cement industry (of which it is hopeful), it will probably represent an insurmountable financial obstacle

I wish the business good fortune, as the world very much needs a solution for asbestos that isn’t simply burying it in the ground.

One of the unique appeals of EAF is that Yvonne works time and space into the schedule. It’s the vital magic that makes all the difference to your enjoyment of, and what you get from, the conference. After the field trip, we all headed back to the hotel for a laid-on meal. By the time delegates get to the conference day itself, they’ve already met many of the speakers and other delegates, got to know each other, and formed friendships.

Conference day

At the conference itself, I was chairing Session B (technology). It was brilliantly fascinating, but being on duty I didn’t have the time to just simply enjoy the event, or to make all the notes I might have liked to. With apologies to any of the delegates that I don’t mention here, or don’t cover in the detail they deserve, here are some of my highlights from the day.

Member of European Parliament (MEP) Nikolaj Villumsen opened the conference, explaining the European Union’s goal to reduce the Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) for asbestos. You may remember that I talked about this in my post from the FAAM conference.

While the new OEL goal was initially 0.001 fibres per millilitre of air (f/ml), in the end the figure settled upon was a less stringent 0.01f/ml. This compromise level was seen by the Commission as more practical, and not requiring much in the way of prolonged technical adaptation. Mr. Villumsen explained his disappointment and frustration with this, and said that it would likely be amended.

In a later talk Federica Paglietti, of the Italian worker safeguarding body INAIL, was able to reveal that only the day before, the EU member states had indeed agreed to amend the limit to the original 0.001f/ml. In addition, they’d agreed that PLM (optical microscopy) would be prohibited in favour of electron microscopy. There will be a lead-in period of somewhere between five to seven years.

I know the UK is no longer part of the European Union, but if ‘they’ implement this, the gravity may well prove un-resistible. It’s not possible to morally argue against a lower limit, but to adopt 100% electron microscopy in the UK within a mere seven years – from a base of virtually nothing – is a daunting task.

It has to be said that we were slightly stunned by these revelations. So much so that another revelation – that the  encapsulation of asbestos would be prohibited in favour of removal – almost slipped by unnoticed.

Huge changes are afoot.

Later in the day, Professor Arthur Frank gave us a tour-de-force analysis of asbestos exposure sources new and old. He also shared an eye-opening look at the vested interests that still prevent the US from introducing an asbestos ban – more than 15 years since it was banned throughout the EU.

Next came two very difficult-to-hear talks. Syed Mezab Ahmed is a Pakistani asbestos campaigner, fighting for an asbestos ban in his country. He was able to organise a conference in Karachi with many internationally renowned speakers. Alas from that moment on, his life, and that of his family, has been under constant threat. He’s suffered the crushing of his car, death threats, and even a 40-plus hour kidnapping of his father, all to shut him up. The final straw came when the local police said they could not protect him. He and his family fled for their lives, and now exist in hiding somewhere in Europe.

Colette Willoughby brought her testimony of the experiences of female analysts to a new international audience. I wrote about her experiences after she first shared them at last year’s FAAM conference, and Colette herself was kind enough to write us an update last month. Colette shines a light on this very dark aspect of our industry. Despite the progress she has helped bring about, it doesn’t get any easier to hear her talk on the subject.

After Colette, keynote speakers Inez Postema and Angelo de Jong laid out Asbetter’s revolutionary new approach to dissolving asbestos. While this was of most interest to those who weren’t able to go on Thursday’s field trip, it remained fascinating to those of us who did.

Breakout

After this the forum split into two groups. I had the privilege of ‘refereeing’ the technology breakout session. We had Sean Fitzgerald on measuring microfibres, and the state-of-mind that a fibre has to have to be asbestiform. Rikard Hodgberg (of INASCO Asbestos Converting AB) discussed another potential treatment of asbestos – using high-temperature denaturing. Tony Smith of Sundstrom also took us through the new ISO standards, which will revolutionise how we approach respirator design and, crucially, training for the wearer.

I also had the pleasure of introducing Jody Schinkel of TNO, a Netherlands-based research firm. He presented the findings of a project establishing the risks posed by the vast acreage of asbestos cement roofs in Holland. The report is in Dutch, but Google Translate is fabulous – here’s its English translation of the full report.

Among other test parameters, the researchers collected the water run-off from the roofs. The collected sludge was found to be an average of 12% asbestos. Further analysis and testing allowed them to discover that each square metre of roof ‘lost’ 1.2g of asbestos to rainwater annually. With an estimated 74 million square metres of cement roofs in Holland, this works out at approximately 90 tonnes of asbestos per year going into the surface water, drains, or the top 50mm of the ground adjacent to the roofs.

I was fascinated to hear from Aron Cserkaszky of Frontier Microscopy – the home of Marvin the robot microscope. For those of you that haven’t read my other pieces on this, Marvin is not a paranoid android, but an innovative bit of technology. It combines a standard optical asbestos microscope, a 3-D printer, and a computer, with AI.

Load Marvin with an asbestos air test slide and he will read it for you. Marvin does not get tired. He diligently reads the slides exactly to the rules no matter the external pressures, and can keep counting as long as you like – increasing his sensitivity hugely.

This has tremendous implications for the asbestos industry, as it is portable, and gives a traceable and repeatable result fast. Depending on the settings, Marvin can measure down to the new OELs proposed by the EU. Even better, it allows the analyst to focus on the most important part of the UK clearance procedure: the visual inspection. Hopefully the apparent EU moratorium on optical microscopy won’t affect this technology: we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Stay Alert

Loretta King and Daniel Rushton also presented on Alert’s live asbestos monitor. If I’m honest, I have previously been doubtful of the device – this may have come from when they pipped Assure360 to the post of Innovation of the Year at the Contamination Expo! But seriously – Daniel effectively and neatly acknowledged and addressed my previous concerns.

While Alert doesn’t tell us the concentration of asbestos (and therefore risk), what it does give us is the ability to instantly spot when asbestos release has happened. This has very wide ranging applications. Firstly, in investigating short duration ‘low-risk’ removal techniques where it can help identify the precise behaviour that led to fibre release. It’s also very useful in leak testing from enclosures. A team that knows immediately when something has happened can act immediately, rather than wait for a quantitative air test. There is even the possibility of hooking up the device to a high flow pump to immediately start a test.

The final speaker in our session was Alexandre Chasteloux, of BCL Invent – a French company. I’ll admit to a certain amount of professional resentment towards France, as they always seem to have the best advances, technology and kit when it comes to asbestos.

Alexandre was presenting on a gel fibre-suppression technique. The concept (gloopy substance that helps retain fibres) is pretty much as old as the hills, but the application was very impressive indeed. Essentially BCL Invent contains the ‘special’ gel within a localised plastic pod. The user fixes the pad to the substrate, and drills or cuts through it into the material beyond.

I have no idea how special the secret gel is, but the videos were incredibly convincing. One showed a simple wrap around a cement pipe, then a reciprocating saw cutting straight through both pad and pipe, with no apparent dust release at all. The data sheet that I’ve seen claims that cutting through raw MMMF (man-made mineral fibres) pipe insulation generates a fibre release of <0.01f/ml (or <10f/m3 for our European colleagues). The potential to improve the safety and speed of wrap and cut pipe removal is tantalising.

To sum up, it was an incredible event, full of ideas, technology, and opportunities to share knowledge. The energy and enthusiasm that EAF generates is visceral. All of the 150-ish delegates I spoke to – whether policy makers, consultants, activists, asbestos removalists, or policy wonks – left energised and enthused about this niche in which we make our careers.

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