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Scientists Make Asbestos Harmless by Turning Fibers Into Glass

August 1994


The souvenir trinket or jewelry you buy on vacation could someday be made of glass containing asbestos recycled from old buildings, including the White House. Asbestos poses a threat to human health because it consists of fibers that can damage skin and lungs and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. But the fibers can be made harmless if heated so their shape changes and they are combined with other substances to form 'safe' glass.

Researchers at The Catholic University of America and engineers from GTS Duratek, a Columbia, Md., environmental technology company, have invented a process to melt asbestos fibers and turn it into glass. The procedure uses a patented DuraMelt furnace.

A ton of asbestos from the White House Conference Center was recently melted at the university's Vitreous State Laboratory.

Once valued as insulation because it resists fire and does not conduct electricity, asbestos is now the bane of homeowners concerned with health, removal costs and house-resale values.

The harmful substance also lurks beneath the earth's surface in hastily prepared dumping sites containing debris from demolished and rehabbed buildings, says Pedro B. Macedo, VSL co-director. Removing asbestos safely is difficult because it is mixed with plaster, wood, and other construction materials.

The prevailing way to dispose of waste containing asbestos is to put it in double poly bags and bury it in landfills. But poly bags are not biodegradable, so the waste remains in a harmful state.

The melter being tested at Catholic University combines wastes with other materials and produces glass that can be recycled as countertops, insulation, decorative bricks, costume jewelry and other products.

Macedo can be reached at 202-319-5329 or 319-5327.

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Revised: 27 October 1997

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The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.