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How does a laboratory analyze a sample for asbestos?

July 1st: Canada Day and Action Mesothelioma Day. Reflecting upon recent events in the North American country, it is a challenge to ignore the disturbing irony. Given the irrefutable dangers of asbestos and subsequent health implications from exposure to this notorious carcinogen, it was with considerable disbelief that I read about the Canadian government’s decision to prevent it from being listed as a hazardous substance. Being one of the world’s largest exporters of the most commonly encountered type of asbestos, Chrysotile, which was banned in 1999 in the UK, it would seem that the Canadian regime are electing to promote the health of the corporate profitability as opposed to the health of the environment and the global working community. The news inspired a fresh appreciation for the tightly regulated procedures we have in the UK to protect our countries workforce and accordingly, I felt it an opportune time to lift the proverbial lid on one of the most important stages in managing potential asbestos containing materials; the asbestos analysis.
To comply with CAWR 2002 (Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations), Regulation 5 states that any employer of people who are due to work with asbestos has an obligation to identify the asbestos type. This process involves sampling to collect a representative sample of the suspect material and then the subsequent analysis to ascertain if asbestos is present, and if so, establish the type. The paramount importance of this stage is clear; all subsequent works conducted are based upon the findings. Accordingly, the process is strictly controlled and closely monitored. In the UK, all asbestos laboratories must be UKAS accredited to ISO 17025, an international standard for laboratories, and UKAS regularly undertake audits to ensure that procedures are accurate and quality is maintained.
The procedures are undertaken in accordance with the HSE guidelines entitled HSG 248. The principal step in the process is to undertake visual examination of the sample. To minimise the risk of releasing fibres into the laboratory, the sealed sample bags must only be opened in fume cabinets which conform to British Standard 7258. After preliminary observations are made to assess the sample type and whether sample treatment is required to release or isolate fibres, the sample is examined using a low powered stereo microscope. This allows the analyst to undertake a more comprehensive and exhaustive search of the sample, using a range of equipment such as needlepoint tweezers and pestle and mortar. Probing the sample is this way enables the analyst to identify individual fibre and make a tentative identification of fibre types present.
Using intricate precision, a fibre is mounted in an appropriate a refractive index (RI) liquid selected to match the most likely asbestos type based upon previous observations. Using polarised light microscopy (PLM) with magnifications from above x80 (as appropriate to the sample type), the fibre can then be identified as one of the six regulated asbestos types on the basis of their unique optical properties. If this procedure is undertaken and no asbestos is identified, additional searches for small asbestos fibres on random sub-samples of a few milligrams are conducted.
The procedure described provides a simplistic abridgment of a complex process which is subject to extensive regulation, legislations and quality control measures. This includes participation in the AIMS quality control scheme administered by the HSE. This scheme is a statutory requirement of UKAS accreditation and participation is indicative of a laboratories competency and standard of work. Further measures include the effective monitoring of each analyst’s accuracy through daily re-checking of samples to confirm the original findings and prevent any anomalies. Similarly, all laboratory equipment and materials are regularly monitored to inspect for contamination and microscopes are aligned and calibrated. Quality must be guaranteed for accurate analysis.
Suffice to say, the operational demands and pressures of such a role command a unique skill set and personality. Whilst all analysts are required to attain their BOHS P401 qualification, there are also specific personal attributes which contribute towards being an effective and accurate analyst.
This includes an ability to work methodically under pressure, maintain composure and focus and constantly demonstrate an exceptional work ethic. To optimise performance, conditions can be adjusted to provide a comfortable environment, such as ergonomic laboratory design and adjustable seating to promote a relaxed posture. Furthermore, it is vital that every laboratory ensures that their workers adhere to the HSE regulations with relation to the maximum number of samples that can be analysed within a 24 hour period. Monitoring such activity prevents performance being impeded through an excessively high workload; in this situation, quality really does surpass quantity.
With such a widespread need within both the commercial and residential industries for effective and reliable analysis, the market for accredited laboratories is a relatively competitive area. However, when selecting a laboratory to work with, it is imperative that the surveyor, or associated representative, is discerning about the actual level of requirement beyond that of analysis. To develop a mutually beneficial relationship based upon trust and understanding, it is vital that a laboratory is sought which endeavours to understand the trials and tribulations experienced by clients and takes steps to facilitate an effective solution, whether this be offering an urgent turnaround of results or the provision of a more detailed description of the sample analysed. Building such a close rapport encourages open lines of communication in the event that further clarification may be required or if an unexpected result is returned. For such reasons, access to your analyst is paramount.
As with many specialist skills which are a mandatory stage in a large scale project, the cost of asbestos analysis can vary wildly. However, an undeniable fact is that it remains a more cost effective process that the alternative price tag that comes with the fines issued as a result of breaching regulations, particularly given that HSE asbestos inspections have trebled in the last two years. Thankfully, with such closely managed procedures in place to effectively recognise, identify and remove asbestos, the costs in the future will be minimised to the occasional fine as opposed to the costly loss of lives.

Sadie Hopson
Technical Manager
Tel: 01268 761 171  Fax: 01268 761 003, Email:
Athena Environmental Solutions Ltd.
Suite 3, Sopwith House, Hurricane Way, Wickford, Essex, SS11 8YU