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New handheld test can detect asbestos

Many homeowners are unaware of whether their house contains asbestos. Used throughout the 20th century as an insulator, asbestos is not detectable by sight alone. Asbestos is a deadly carcinogen linked to mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Much of the asbestos causing health problems today came from a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. Libby vermiculite contains a high concentration of asbestos. Vermiculite is a mineral that expands when heated, leading to it being an effective insulator.

Asbestos testing

An estimated 30 million American homes still have asbestos from Libby vermiculite. Asbestos from vermiculite can be found in floor tile, roofing, insulation and elsewhere throughout the home. While testing for asbestos is neither particularly difficult nor expensive, it does take time. In order to determine if asbestos is present, a sample of the material needs to be taken and sent to a lab.

Handheld device detects Libby vermiculite

A new hand-held test is now available that could shorten the time needed to know if vermiculite insulation from the mine in Libby, Montana, is in your home. A scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have created a hand-held spectrometer that can detect whether vermiculite is from the Libby mine.

Spectrometers detect the colors of light given off by a burning substance. Every mineral has a distinct reading. By using the spectrometer, a person familiar with the device can read the signature emissions coming from the vermiculite to determine if it is from Libby, and therefore likely contaminated with asbestos.

Traditional asbestos testing still the likeliest option

The hand-held method is not likely to replace existing methods. Currently, asbestos is detected in labs under a microscope. While labor-intensive, it is not particularly expensive. The hand-held spectrometer, on the other hand, costs approximately $50,000.

Still, it is good that methods are being developed on how better to test for asbestos. The more people are aware of whether asbestos may be in their homes, the fewer people will be needlessly exposed to this incredibly harmful substance.

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