Villian of the week: asbestos

Villian of the week: asbestos
25 July 2012 - Be scared

It is summer time, everybody is on vacation or so it seems (this is Europe) and if it wasn't for sports the media would have nothing to report. Last year's media-aggrevated event was the the case of the contaminated cucumbers in Germany (source never found) and the year before that a big cat was on the loose in the Dutch countryside (also never found). This years hype is possibly an asbestos scare in the city of Utrecht.
Over a 100 residents of a group of apartment buildings were told by the police on Sunday they could not return to their homes because the place was contaminated by asbestos as a result of renovation work. This raised a lot of eyebrows: the renovation work had already started earlier in the week and the asbestos they knew was there was handled by a specialised company. Also curious: the reports to date fail to identify the type of asbestos involved and according to city officials and the owner of the building the analysis results will take up to week to arrive.
The technicians on the scene (see pic here) are busy with air sampling devices so it is also an airborne threat under investigation. According to this report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2004) phase contrast microscopy or TEM are the weapons of choice for actually counting the number of asbestos particles in samples. But why would this take so long?

In this news report a representative of the building society explains that as many labs as possible were contracted for the analysis work. A total of 6500 samples, 33 per apartment according to another source. The results were already in but analysing exactly what was going on would require more time. If nothing was found you can return to the contaminate site and filter air samples for a much longer time in order to get a significant result. When the results from the various laboratories contradict each other of course you also have a problem.
Simon Roozendaal of Elsevier was quick to comment the government should not scare the public. Asbestos is a serious occupational hazard but you have nothing to fear from a single exposure. Twitter is equally sceptic: smoking is a larger health risk. And has anyone already mentioned the neighbourhood is wedged in between 2 of the countries busiest highways?

Update 26-07: Asbestos specialist estimates risk illness 1 in 1.7 billion (VK)
Update 26-07: building society has already spent over 1 million euros(VK)
Update 27-07: the culprit is so-called spuitasbest (nu.nl). Mostly amosite, highly concentrated but not coagulated and therefore more dangerous than other asbestos types(infomil.nl)
Update 27-07: Another specialist has doubts about the spuitasbest story. Used to processed exclusively in industry for treatment of large metal surfaces like those on ships but not in housing! (nos.nl)
Update 27-07: Next specialist: spuitasbest has consistency of pur foam and cannot contaminate a site like this. Contamination of a house is not possible from the outside to the inside because a house is always overpressurised. (nrc.nl). Does this make sense from a physics perspective?
Update 02-08: It is getting worse: police force 42 people out of their homes in Rotterdam in new asbestos scare (nrc.nl)
Update 02-08: And worse. Another evacuation now in Emmeloord (nos.nl)
Update 02-08:In the meanwhile the Utrecht residents can return home: no asbestos was found... (nos.nl)
Update 02-08: Twitter complaints. In the Netherlands four million homes have been built in the 1970's and 1980's possibly containing asbestos. Will Germany be able to handle that many refugees? or will the authorities come to their senses?
Update 16-08: Forgot to mention, another 2011 non-event in the Dutch media was the highway shooter and of course never found. Another 2012 event is the Rijkswaterstaat shaking building. Cause unknown.
Update 16-08:The report is in!