Destroying asbestos using whey and producing CO2 and other harmless and marketable elements? It can be done. It is a real godsend for a country like Italy, hit by serious shortages: according to the Department of Production Installations and Anthropic Settlements (DIPIA) of Inail, in June 2013 there were only 73 disposal sites in the whole country of which only 19 were active and in 8 regions, mostly in the South, dumps are completely absent. 23 years after asbestos was banned (L. 257/1992), Italy, first country in Europe to do that, is still facing the disposal of asbestos products and is not prepared to handle the health emergency that could arise as a consequence.
The patent for neutralizing asbestos and therefore cut down disposal costs comes from Bologna University, thanks to a research led by Prof. Roberto Roveri, full professor of general chemistry at the Bologna Institute, regarding the possible neutralization of negative effects tied to asbestos cement, the dangerous material composed of 90% cement and sand and 10% asbestos.
How does this process take place? The chemical reaction from the union of these two elements creates simple carbon dioxide and leaves a residue of calcium and asbestos fibers on the bottom. These must not be disposed of in a normal dump but they must be completely destroyed in total safety using a secondary process. Everything is based on a double-phase immersion of the products in the acid byproducts of cheesemaking processes. The first phase makes the cement soluble, while the second one, at 180°C, is supposed to completely destroy the asbestos fibers.
The system is supposedly risk-free, since it takes place within a pressurized liquid therefore preventing the really dangerous asbestos particles to become volatile.
As anticipated, this process comes with the possibility to create marketable products, for instance water paints or fertilizers. But that is just the beginning, in fact, through a simple electrolytic process there is also the possibility to obtain magnesium, nickel, manganese and other remarkably valuable metals that are not easily found in Italy.
The case for Puglia
The first implant for asbestos neutralization through whey designed by Project Resources Asbestos srl was supposed to be built in Melpignano, a small town in Puglia with around 2000 inhabitants; the plan has been stopped by the population and then moved to Andria, where a pilot industrial plant is still under evaluation.
The inhabitants of the small village in Salento opposed to the project also using a parliamentary question, in which it is reported that in Italy there are over 100 patents for neutralizing asbestos, none of which reached adequate safety standards and an acceptable cost/benefit ratio.
Local associations, for what concerns the process patented by Chemical Center Srl, asked themselves many questions. One of the main features of the project, for instance, is the recycling not only of the whey but also of other byproducts, if sufficiently acid, such those derived by viticulture or olive milling, that is “food waste typical of the region where the implant is situated”. However, in order to process the 10 tons of asbestos a day expected by the business plan, 50 to 1000 tons of whey would be necessary: a quantity the region doesn’t have. Moreover, as the Pugliesi state, it is unclear how the chemical reaction between asbestos and whey could be reproduced using the other acid refluxes mentioned and it is not clear what safety procedures should be applied in the implant during the phase of transportation/storage/treatment of asbestos products.
The Chamber, in the matter of Melpignano and the project by Chemical Center srl, responded that Ispra (Superior Institute for Environmental Research) has never been involved in the evaluation of the project nor it has the technical specifications to proceed to assess said project.
Now, it looks like the company is giving it one more shot in Salento, more specifically in the industrial area of Cavallino, where it is asking to realize an experimental prototype for demonstration purposes of a treatment facility for processing asbestos cement products through whey.
The petition has been filed last October 7 to the Ministry of Environment, besides being filed to the Comune, to the Lecce Province and the Region of Puglia. The petition asks to verify the project subjection to feasibility and citizens have 45 days to file possible observations. Project Resource Asbestos S.r.l filed the request, along with Rei which owns the Galatone asbestos disposal site, and Ambiente&Sviluppo which manages the bio-stabilization implant and the former Galatone disposal site, and Geoambiente, which presented the project for the new special non-dangerous waste disposal site in contrada Masseria Parachianca, Lecce.
In Cavallino, they ask to start a reduced scale prototype which would be smaller than Andria’s with a potential of around 20 kg/cycle. Anyway, from Salento to Terra di Bari, still in the Region of Puglia.
Disposal sites and incinerators will disappear starting from 2020
There are currently other methods to denaturize asbestos but they are outrageously expensive. In France and Germany, for instance, they use thermal processes that crystallizes and make asbestos inert at around 800°C, by using a plasma lightbulb, which is effective but very expensive at a price point of around €900/ton, and introduces toxic gases in the atmosphere at the same time. In Italy, disposal sites are still the most popular solution, with a cost of just €140/ton, however it is an extremely dangerous solution and not a long-term one either: asbestos is packaged and disposed of in disposal sites, abandoned quarries that are coated in polymers. This choice involves high levels of criticality. In the disposal sites, asbestos bales are pressed together to be better buried. These practice is extremely dangerous because it crashes the asbestos inside the packages, making it volatile and therefore carcinogenic once the external package, in a 20 to 30 years, will inevitably give and the fibers will break free and pollute the aquifers.
In the meantime, the European commission ruled to ban incinerators and waste disposal sites within the year 2020. Therefore, we need an alternative solution.
The method invented by Bologna University, which extracts useful raw materials from asbestos destruction, would not only eliminate the need to create new disposal sites but it could also represent an incentive to reclaim existing ones. The process created by the researcher team, not only looks effective, but it could also provide several economic advantages. First of all, the main chemical reagent of the process is whey, which is a byproduct of the agribusiness, and could therefore be disposed of through a process presenting “zero” costs and zero environmental impact.
The results of the experts of Bologna University are being evaluated by the Ministry of Environment, which will have to decide about authorizing and possibly releasing funds for building the first facility.
Unfortunately, it looks like asbestos, at the end of the denaturation process, doesn’t completely disappear, but it just reduces its concentration (passing from 12% concentration to 2%). So, where do the residues go? Where to keep the facility filters which will partly contain them? And if there are residues, can we be sure the byproducts of the processing, such as the fertilizers, will be totally asbestos-free? These are reasonable and appropriate questions.
Mesothelioma, a disease caused mainly by asbestos, and all other disease tied to asbestos are still on the rise, and given the long latency period between exposition to the mineral and insurgence of the disease, the peak of one of the most aggressive neoplasia known to mankind is expected in around 2022.
The disposal of RCA (Asbestos-Containing Waste) is still not mandatory and if costs will remain so high, given the scarcity of disposal sites and appropriate neutralization facilities, we will still witness the illegal abandonment of corrugated materials and the likes, which will be exposed to the weather for a long time and will start to degrade and eventually let deadly fibers loose in the air.
The National Asbestos Plan was born 2012 and, to this day, haven’t been deployed yet. Cigl, Cisl and Uil Piemonte – one of the regions that have been hit the most by this issue, also due to the on-site presence of production sites – as of last October, once again state how important it is to classify asbestos disposal sites as Sites of National Interest, to incentivize the disposal of RCA with tax relieves and deliver them free of charge to the disposal facilities, and also define a maximum lifespan (25/30 years) for asbestos products.
What else is missing? Verification and evaluation by the Minister of Environment, to which Prof. Roveri has been asking hearing for several years, however there is never time to evaluate this project. Yet each territory could have its own asbestos processing facility. We hope operations to assess the validity of the process will start as soon as possible, without the usual delays due to bureaucracy, because in the meantime, mesothelioma is still killing people.