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Asbestiform Minerals and Human Health

Asbestos is a commercial-industrial term with a long history, and is not a mineralogical definition. ‘‘Asbestos’’ in the latter half of the 20th century became widely used in regulatory language to refer to well developed, long, thin particles (fibers or fibrils) and fiber bundles of specific mineral compositions, which have fulfilled particular industrial applications. In the United States, asbestos is most commonly defined as the asbestiform variety of six naturally occurring hydrated silicate minerals; these include chrysotile, the asbestiform member of the serpentine group, and five minerals of the amphibole group: (1) crocidolite, the asbestiform variety of riebeckite), (2) amosite, the asbestiform variety of cummingtonite-grunerite, (3) anthophyllite asbestos, (4) actinolite asbestos, and (5) tremolite asbestos.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry potential health effects of exposure to asbestos can include asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancers. In the past, most medical research and regulatory focus has been on the health effects of asbestos used industrially or commercially. However, there have been increasing concerns recently regarding the potential health effects of naturally-occurring asbestos (NOA), which occurs as an accessory mineral in some rocks (for example, tremolite in metamorphosed carbonate rocks, chrysotile in serpentinite rocks), or as an impurity in some other industrial minerals (for example, amphibole asbestos intergrown with vermiculite mined at Libby, Montana).

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research activities in collaboration with health scientists examined a number scientific questions regarding asbestos, such as:

  • Providing mineralogical information that will help health scientists better understand the potential role of fibrous but nonasbestiform crystals and cleavage fragments in disease;
  • Compiling information on the range of geologic environments in which asbestiform minerals occur nationwide and globally;
  • Developing remote sensing techniques to help map the distribution of potential naturally-occuring asbestos in rocks;
  • Developing remote sensing techniques to differentiate asbestiform versus non-asbestiform varieties of the same mineral;
  • Understanding how the mineralogical, chemical, and toxicological characteristics of the asbestos may vary between the different geologic environments of formation;
  • Understanding how asbestiform minerals may interact chemically with lung, tissue, and cellular fluids, and how these interactions may influence toxicity.

More Information

Selected USGS Publications On Asbestos

Case, B.W., Abraham, J.L., Meeker, G., Pooley, F.D., and Pinkerton, K.E., 2011, Applying definitions of "asbestos" to environmental and "low-dose" exposure levels and health effects, particularly malignant mesothelioma: Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health - Part B--Critical Reviews, v. 14, no. 1-4, p. 3-39, doi:10.1080/10937404.2011.556045.

Van Gosen, B.S., 2007, The geology of asbestos in the United States and its practical applications: Environmental and Engineering Geoscience, v. 13, doi:10.2113/gseegeosci.13.1.55.

Meeker, G.P., Bern, A.M., Brownfield, I.K., Lowers, H.A., Sutley, S.J., Hoefen, T.M., and Vance, J.S., 2003, The composition and morphology of amphiboles from the rainy creek complex, near Libby, Montana: American Mineralogist, v. 88, no. 11-12 PART 2, p. 1955-1969.

Plumlee, G.S., Morman, S.A., Meeker, G.P., Hoefen, T.M., Hageman, P.L., and Wolf, R.E., 2014, The Environmental and Medical Geochemistry of Potentially Hazardous Materials Produced by Disasters (11.7), in Holland, H.D., and Turekian, K.K., eds., Treatise on Geochemistry (Second Edition): Oxford, Elsevier, p. 257-304, ISBN:978-0-08-098300-4.

Meeker, G.P. and Lowers, H.A., 2004, Analytical error in the identification of fibrous and asbestiform amphiboles--Implications for the analytical and regulatory communities: Microscopy and Microanalysis, 10 (Suppl. 02), pp 902-903, doi:10.1017/S1431927604882400.

Van Gosen, B.S., Lowers, H.A., Bush, A.L., Meeker, G.P., Plumlee, G.S., Brownfield, I.K., and Sutley, S.J., 2002, Reconnaissance study of the geology of U.S. vermiculite deposits—Are asbestos minerals common constituents?: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2192, 8 p.

Van Gosen, B.S., Lowers, H.A., Sutley, S.J., and Gent, C.A., 2004, Using the geologic setting of talc deposits as an indicator of amphibole asbestos content: Environmental Geology, v. 45, no. 7, p. 920-939, doi:10.1007/s00254-003-0955-2.

Asbestos Information from Other Agencies


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