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Asbestos-Eating Foam

A new chemical foam can break down asbestos fibers in materials once used to fireproof homes, schools, and offices. The foam, announced at a press conference today by the chemical company W.R. Grace and the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, transforms asbestos to a harmless silicate compound while leaving fireproofing intact.

Asbestos fibers are tubes curled from sheets of magnesium and silicon oxides. The fibers help plaster adhere to walls and resist flames, but certain forms of asbestos are also potent carcinogens. For the last 2 decades, companies have been tearing asbestos fireproofing out of walls and replacing it with more benign fire retardants--a time-consuming and expensive activity that can release breathable asbestos fibers into the air.

Scientists at Grace, a firm in Boca Raton, Florida, that produces fireproofing materials, sought a way to eliminate asbestos fibers without having to rip up the woodwork. Working with Brookhaven, the researchers produced a foam composed of acids and fluoride ions that converts asbestos fibers to an amorphous form that appears to protect from flames just as well as asbestos. "What used to be asbestos becomes a nonregulated material," says Brookhaven project leader Leon Petrakis.