New Asbestos-Detecting Microscope Could Improve Abatement Process

Asbestos abatement procedures have been the same for many years in most of the world. Even countries like Australia that have bans in place still face the threat of the toxin because of the costs of abatement, the magnitude of older buildings and homes built with the toxin, and the testing and removal process not getting necessary updates to improve.

With all of this in mind, an engineer in Australia went looking to update how asbestos is detected. While asbestos has been banned in the country since 2003, it’s estimated that one in three homes in Australia still contains the toxin. Thousands more schools and older buildings likely still contain the mineral as well. Even with a ban, the dangers of asbestos don’t easily go away. Hopefully with this new technology some of the process can be sped up to better protect citizens by more easily recognizing and being able to remove asbestos, and thus help prevent asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.

Standard Methods of Testing for Asbestos

There are several methods for how asbestos professionals and certified labs investigate the presence of asbestos in a sample. The method analysts use typically differs depending on what is being investigated, such as analyzing potential airborne fibers, a bulk sample of a building material, settled dust or other materials, soil or water.

In the United States, the type of analysis used may also depend on the building. Under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) , schools must be tested by a lab certified by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST). Under their asbestos program guidelines, only Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) or Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) are allowed to be used depending on the type of sample. Other methods, like Phase Contrast Microscopy (PCM), may be used for other buildings and homes, though the Environmental Protection Agency still recommends using a NIST certified lab to ensure the best quality results.

PLM and TEM are generally the preferred methods used most widely today. Polarized light microscopes are often preferred because of their high degree of sensitivity and ability to more clearly differentiate mineral fibers. These microscopes can also further specify the specific type of asbestos being observed in a sample. The PLM method can be quite economical, as analysts can evaluate bulk samples rather quickly and in some cases may even be able to do so on sight. However, researchers note some downsides to this method as some fiber samples may be too small for analysis and it takes a lot of experience to properly use these microscopes.

The other preferred method is using transmission electron microscopes, which are particularly useful in identifying the smallest asbestos fibers with widths as small as 0.01 micron. In some cases, TEM will be used in conjunction with the light microscopes, but can still provide accurate results on its own. Like PLM, these microscopes can differentiate types of fibers in the samples.

Though these and other analysis methods are generally quite reliable, they can all face human error as people have to know how to properly operate the microscope and identify what a sample can show. Even looking at the same sample in different labs can bring different results. In a case study of talcum powders contaminated with asbestos, four labs tested the same samples of the powder. Though also using TEM, one lab did not properly identify asbestos in its sample.

With such room for error, Australian engineer Jordan Gruber sought out to help change how asbestos is detected and handled with new technology.

Marvin the Robotic Microscope

Gruber developed a prototype of a microscope combined with 3D printing dubbed Marvin. The microscope doesn’t have a typical eyepiece for a researcher to examine a sample. Instead, Marvin takes up several hundred images of an air sample in under a minute and uploads the images to a cloud based software. The software can analyze the sample quickly, providing results from the whole process in just about two minutes.

Gruber has said the main advantages of his new technology is the ability to eliminate the need for manual handling and processing of the dangerous minerals in these samples. At the same time, the software accomplishes the analysis much faster than a human ever could. Lab analysts can only prepare and analyze samples so quickly, and can be further held up by a long reporting process. With such accuracy and quick results using Marvin, this could allow labs to analyze more samples more efficiently and help speed up the abatement process overall.

Marvin is also much easier to use than operating one of the microscopes utilized in current processes. This data could be accessed anywhere supported by the cloud, with simple operation, automated reporting through the software, and consistent results. However, Marvin does have its limits, as the technology is currently only meant for air samples. The microscope will be especially useful for measuring air quality at construction and demolition sites or in homes after abatement; however, the technology is not yet able to handle bulk samples of building materials, soil or other kinds of samples.

Making Asbestos Abatement Easier

Gruber and his company, Frontier Microscopy, hope to launch Marvin commercially in the coming months. The new technology can be a big help in Australia, and hopefully will be available around the world as well. Thousands of buildings, homes, and schools around the world still contain asbestos, and some areas of the world like Russia still actively use the toxin and keep it on the market.

It will take a long time for the dangers of asbestos to truly be a thing of the past. Though more countries have banned the toxin, most recently Brazil, more than half of the world still allows asbestos in some capacity today. Even with bans in place, the threat of asbestos doesn’t simply disappear. Gruber hoped to help reduce the looming dangers of asbestos in Australia’s many buildings by building this technology, which will hopefully help improve abatement projects and keep more citizens safe once it officially launches. Until then, people around the world need to be aware of where to find asbestos and understand their legal rights if they are exposed to the toxin.