A ground-breaking research project focused on protecting people and other living species from the dangers of asbestos has been announced as the inaugural project for Unitec’s newly-launched Environmental Solutions Research Centre (ESRC).

The research project, which will examine the treatment of asbestos-contaminated waste, will be overseen by ESRC Director Dr Terri-Ann Berry, an environmental scientist and senior lecturer at Unitec’s School of Engineering and Applied Technology.  Her team, in collaboration with universities in Australia and the US, will evaluate the effectiveness of using natural micro-organisms (including fungi) to degrade asbestos fibres and potentially remove their cancer-causing elements.   

Dr Berry will be working with a transdisciplinary group of staff from across Unitec at the ESRC – the first of its kind in New Zealand -- as well as groups of industry and tertiary institute partners, many of whom are investing resources in the centre. 

“Sustainability challenges in New Zealand and throughout the rest of the world require new ways of research and innovation,” said Dr Berry.  “By working on such complex and multi-generational challenges as asbestos-contaminated soil, the Research Centre will foster transdisciplinary industry- engaged research to tackle waste and pollution challenges and, as a result, impact how businesses can work together to resolve critical, shared challenges.” 

The ESRC will partner chemists, biologists, engineers, epidemiologists, geographers and building and construction experts with industry experts from various fields such as waste management and minimisation, air quality, wastewater treatment and civil engineering. 

“The partnerships are testimony to Unitec’s commitment to developing industry and community-connected staff and enhancing our student’s learning experience,” added Dr Berry.

Chemcare, a New Zealand company licensed to safely remove and dispose of asbestos materials, is the first private sector company to partner on the asbestos project.  The Ministry for the Environment's Waste Minimisation Fund has contributed a grant of $394,000 towards the project. Funding was approved by Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage.

The Unitec research team members from left: Erin Doyle, Dr Dan Blanchon, Dr Peter De Lange, Shannon Wallis, and Dr Terri-Ann Berry.

The Unitec research team members from left: Erin Doyle, Dr Dan Blanchon, Dr Peter De Lange, Shannon Wallis, and Dr Terri-Ann Berry.

Asbestos-related conditions remain the greatest workplace killer in New Zealand, estimated to be around 170 deaths a year.  For decades, asbestos (a fibrous mineral) was valued for its ability to strengthen building materials, provide insulation and fire resistance.  But since 2000, following deeper understanding of the dangers of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibres, further inclusion of asbestos in any construction materials has been banned.

Nevertheless, many millions of tonnes of materials containing asbestos still exist in building and civil construction sites throughout the country.

Establishing how the cancer-causing elements of asbestos can be removed will enable areas of contaminated land where fibres have been released and mixed in with ground matter, to be made safe once again.

David Serville, managing director of Chemcare, says the Unitec research will have global significance. “Every nation is starting to address how it can remove and safely dispose of asbestos materials. Unitec’s research has the potential to clean vast areas of contaminated ground by natural means and we understand how significant this work is for the world,” he said.

Article also available on Unitec's website.