There is something quite energising about the European Asbestos Forum (EAF) conference, and this year was no exception.
The theme for EAF 2019 was Asbestos and Innovation, and while asbestos is a given in our industry, innovation is not. Certainly in the UK, the asbestos sector is the most strictly regulated industry other than nuclear, yet for decades our main control measure has been polythene sheets and tape. Our main detection method is the near-century-old technique of phase contrast microscopy (PCM). And how do we dispose of our deadly material? We bury it in the ground!
For too long, technology has seemed to be something that happened to other industries, but in the past few years there have been vast strides in control measures and medical treatment. At EAF 2019, we were given a fascinating look at a range of technological advances.
Among the first was a breakthrough process with the potential to make denaturing asbestos a workable reality – making it safe, rather than burying it for another generation to worry about. Asbetter Acids’ fascinating process pits waste acids against asbestos cement waste, with the effect that they cancel each other out. It’s a really elegant solution: the acid eats away at deadly asbestos fibres, while the cement’s alkaline nature ultimately neutralises the acid. What’s more, the end by-product can be used to make new roofing sheets – useful to replace old ones made from asbestos cement. Genius.
Marvin the robot microscope provided another eye opener, as Frontier Microscopy explained a technology with the potential to dramatically improve the speed of air testing – and the quality of four-stage clearances. The robot essentially looks like a large PCM scope. Operators conduct air tests and prepare the resulting slides as normal, but then Marvin automatically moves the optics, while some clever AI counts the fibres. Marvin uses the same rules as human analysts, and in testing he has proved himself more accurate than an average human.
Frontier created the automated technology to cope with the vast distances in Australia, where samples have to be flown back to central laboratories for analysis. This can result in big delays between an air test and being able to strike the enclosure. Doubtless Marvin addresses that issue, but I expect it could also have huge benefits in the UK.
Here, analysts are often guilty of thinking that the air test (stage three) is the most important part of the four-stage clearance. In fact, their primary focus needs to be on stage two (the visual inspection). If we were to take analysis of the air test away from analysts, they would be able to focus their attention specifically on the part of the clearance that makes the most difference to the result.
The asbestos health disaster
Despite the promise of new technology and techniques, it’s sobering to be reminded of the scale of the public health challenge that asbestos still presents. Professor Jukka Takala, president of the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), gave a dramatic review of the latest figures describing the asbestos disaster.
And disaster it is: each year asbestos causes 255,000 deaths worldwide, and the direct global costs for asbestos-related sickness, early retirement and death are estimated at an eye-watering $1.14 trillion (£880 billion). Taken across the EU and western European countries, it’s equivalent to 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP).
For many of us, these sobering figures are a reminder of why we work in this industry, and the scale of the challenges that face us as we try to keep workers and the public safe from this deadly material. They’re also a reminder of the importance of focused and leading-edge events such as the EAF conference – a chance for all of us to learn from some of the very best sources there are.
This year’s event concluded with the customary thanks and awards. There was a focus on Professor Arthur Frank, one of the world’s leading experts, who has dedicated his life to researching and writing on occupational health, toxicology and asbestos. Arthur was deservadly given the EAF Recognition Award – a fitting acknowledgement of the importance of his work.
All that remained was a fantastic conference dinner. Within our small industry, among a group of like-minded specialists, experts and advocates, it felt more like dinner with friends.
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