Assure 360

The Asbestonomy conference – fresh thinking on a problem that hasn’t gone away

Written by Nick Garland on 18/07/2022
 

It’s a brave move to launch a new event when Covid 19 is still loitering about, so it was great to be at the first Asbestonomy conference in London in mid-June. Even better was the fact that this refreshingly interesting and worthwhile event was a real success. While owing much to other conferences among leading thinkers, Asbestonomy is aiming to carve out a different identity: despite high calibre speakers and delegates, it’s less academic than, for example, FAAM – and much more about ideas, policy and different points of view from around the world.

The conference was kick-started with a video presentation by the Danish MEP Nikolaj Villumsen. As you might expect, his talk focused on the policy changes coming down the line in Europe, particularly focusing on where the ‘green deal’ intersects with the problem of our asbestos legacy. As legislators and our industry are increasingly aware, the drive to insulate homes and make them ready for net zero is likely to clash dangerously with the reality of our ageing, asbestos-insulated building stock.

Nikolaj’s talk highlighted many recommendations that also featured in the recent Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Committee report:

  1. Strategy for removal
  2. Public asbestos registers
  3. Financial framework to support removal
  4. Financial support for strengthening enforcement

But he also discussed a mooted EU-wide rule to mandate asbestos surveys before the renovation or sale of a home – an eminently sensible idea for any property that predates the banning of ACMs in construction.

Other parts of Nikolaj’s talk highlighted areas of potential disagreement. The EU is keen to introduce an occupational exposure limit (OEL) of 1,000 fibres per cubic metre (f/m3), or 0.001 fibres per millilitre (f/ml). However, we have a very real concern in the UK about setting any OEL for asbestos, and especially setting the wrong one – which 0.001 f/ml almost certainly is.

However, discussing an OEL does raise the question of whether we should be looking again at reducing our clearance indicator (CI) – the level below which an analyst can declare an area ‘cleared’ of asbestos. As a community I personally think we need to open this discussion, look at the objections, and work out whether they’re good enough to outweigh the advantages.

For example, would lowering the CI lead to other benefits, such as eliminating pressure on analysts to clear an area? Would it eliminate borderline passes that perhaps shouldn’t be passed, e.g. an area that’s visually ‘clean-ish’ with an air test result of 0.008f/ml? It’s probably time we discussed it.

Asbestos Safe

“The asbestos bans gave people a false feeling of safety as it made them think it was yesterday’s problem.”

This stand out quote came from Flemish policy maker Sven de Mulder, in his presentation regarding Flanders’ drive to become asbestos safe by 2040 – an initiative in which he remains the driving force. It rings all too true: I can’t say how many times I’ve heard comments like “Asbestos? I thought that was all sorted years ago…”.

I was familiar with the Flemish initiative, but de Mulder made clear something I hadn’t fully understood: the policy is to be asbestos safe, rather than asbestos free. How this translates is that all accessible asbestos in poor condition is to be removed by 2040, not all asbestos. Again, this calls to mind the DWP committee’s headline recommendation to remove all asbestos – is the Flemish goal more realistic, and would it be as effective?

The Flemish approach is very much risk-based, therefore starts with buildings where the users can’t be expected to manage their own risk, such as schools. The timescale looks like this:

  1. 2018 – Government action plan
  2. 2019 – Legislation in place
  3. 2022 – Asbestos survey required when selling
  4. 2032 – Asbestos survey of all buildings (database of registers to measure progress)
  5. 2034 – Removal of all external asbestos cement
  6. 2040 – Removal of all accessible asbestos in poor condition

What appears to have helped the success of the campaign so far is that it started with getting all stakeholders on board. Since then there’s been years of coverage and discussion, which seems to have allowed the removal industry to plan appropriately.

Technical focus

Asbestonomy’s middle section was quite technical, and I won’t recount it in too much detail here. Notable speakers included ITGA technical director Martine Chouvet, who explained why the French government has decided to pursue a transmission electron microscopy (TEM) approach to fibre analysis, rather than phase light or scanning electron microscopy. Sean Fitzgerald also gave a more academic talk, bringing some of the audience up to speed on asbestos, geological considerations, and his work in testing for asbestos in talc and makeup.

The afternoon session explored four different approaches to communicating survey findings to users. ITGA IT director Benoît Lanlard, UKNAR CEO Andrew Paten, Victorian Asbestos Eradication Agency CEO Simone Stevenson, and ACM manager of Aléa Contrôles, Santiago Jimenez, all gave impressive presentations, discussing cloud-based asbestos registers for entire geographic regions.

The French, Australian and Spanish versions all make heavy use of building information modelling technology. In contrast, UKNAR’s simplified approach is very appealing – it’s effectively a repository for existing registers, which seems very cost effective. I particularly like UKNAR’s innovative approach of using QR codes to give workers easy accessibility to a site’s asbestos records.

The final session was on asbestos removal and waste disposal, where it was interesting to again hear from Thermal Recycling (UK) chairman Graham Gould. When he spoke previously at FAAM, one concern I had was that burning asbestos at 1,400oC was a potentially questionable solution in a net zero world. However, when I challenged Graham on this, he made the point that the end product of the heat recycling process is a concrete replacement. When fed into that product stream – which itself is responsible for high carbon emissions – the material saves as much carbon as was used in the asbestos destruction process. In other words, the overall carbon footprint remains unchanged. What’s more, the kilns are already compatible with hydrogen, when it becomes commercially available.

Graham also made the point that now in the UK we still have quite a lot of asbestos waste to deal with, so plants like his are commercially viable. If we wait until more of that asbestos has been buried in landfill we may have missed the opportunity.

So: will construction clients pay more to denature asbestos rather than bury it? Graham feels that many socially and environmentally aware end clients would pay the premium if they had the option, but it strikes me that public opinion might have an important role to play here. The current understanding may be that asbestos ‘was all sorted years ago’, but greater coverage as net zero refurbishments get under way might shift the sentiment, and help nudge developers towards doing the right thing.

Rise of the robots

Finally, I was fascinated to hear from Mickael Place of French asbestos removal specialists, DI Environmental. At a cost of €10 million, they have built a processing factory for recycling asbestos-insulated railway rolling stock. It uses robotic arms, operated from a separate control room, to completely remove all asbestos. The blasting techniques employed use iron shot, which can be cleaned and reused. Once cleaned (and tested), the carriages are broken down and recycled on site.

There’s no worker exposure in this very efficient, ‘futuristic’ process: it’s an astonishing semi-automated solution. While the specific use case might not be relevant to the UK, it’s a great example of what’s possible with the application of technology and imagination.

Significantly, knowing that processes like this can be achieved helps to unblinker us when we are considering our own intractable problems. Over the next decade and longer, we’ll see the growing need for asbestos management expertise coupled with an increasing demand for permanent solutions – rather than just burying fibres for future generations to deal with.

For me, DI Environmental’s plant highlights both an opportunity, and a real danger we face in the UK. We think that we are very good at managing asbestos – and with some justification. But if we don’t broaden out who we’re listening to, we could get trapped in an echo chamber where we keep reinforcing how great we are, rather than innovating to get better. With some embarrassment, I can easily imagine how we might have attempted to solve the rolling stock problem.

All in all then, Asbestonomy was a success: informative and thought-provoking as all good conferences should be. Yet in style and substance it very much felt like a homage to the European Asbestos Forum Conference. I look forward to Asbestonomy when it returns, but I strongly recommend you also make the effort to go to November’s EAF conference in the meantime.

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