Health implications of environmental exposure to asbestos.
The health impact of environmental pollution resulting from the industrial use of asbestos can be assessed in three ways. First, there are the direct epidemiological surveys. These indicate that domestic exposure has been responsible for cases of mesothelioma and possibly lung cancer and radiological changes in family contacts of asbestos workers. Exposure in the neighborhood of crocidolite mines and factories has also resulted in cases of mesothelioma but no similar evidence exists for chrysotile or amosite. Neither air nor water pollution has been directly incriminated as a cause of either respiratory or digestive malignancies. Second, a few attempts have been made to extrapolate from exposure response findings in industrial cohorts. For several reasons, even for lung cancer, this approach is dubious: the observed gradients have a 100-fold range in slope; the equivalences of dust, fiber and gravimetric measures are largely guesswork; and the carcinogenic potential of mineral fibers, particularly for the pleura, varies enormously with fiber type and/or dimensions. No adequate exposure-response observations have been made for mesothelioma. A third approach makes use of the differing incidence of mesothelioma in men and women. Data from several countries indicate that, until the 1950s (i.e., 30-40 years after significant industrial use of asbestos began), the rates were similar in both sexes. Since then, the incidence in males has risen steeply--in the U.S. and U.K. at about 10% per annum. In females, on the other hand, there has been little or no convincing increase. These data suggest that the "background" level of mesothelioma in both sexes is and has been about 2 per million per annum and that--as at least some mesothelioma cases in females are directly or indirectly attributable to occupational exposure--there is little room left for any contribution from the general environment. It is recommended that mesothelioma surveillance, backed by appropriate epidemiological inquiries, offers an effective method of monitoring the health impact of asbestos air pollution.