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Health officials release “roadmap” for future asbestos-related research

The federal agency that directs scientific research into work-related illnesses has proposed expanding an ongoing study of asbestos to include a broad range of minerals with similar characteristics.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says the new strategy will address uncertainties about the toxicity of a group of elongate miner­al particles, or EMPs. Some EMPs, such as asbestos fibers, have long been known to cause mesothelioma, a rare and invariably fatal cancer, lung disease and other serious health problems.


The agency’s new plan, "Asbestos Fibers and Other Elongated Mineral Particles: State of the Science and Roadmap for Research," will identify the gaps in knowledge about EMPs in order to update and develop new evidence-based recommendations to reduce exposure to asbestos and other mineral fibers.


“The NIOSH roadmap outlines a strategic framework for designing, conducting and applying the research that will best serve the need to address persistent scientific uncertainties about occupational health and elongate mineral particles,” said NIOSH Director John Howard. “We look forward to working with our partners to advance this research, building on today’s state-of-the-art scientific tools and methodologies.”


NIOSH says health effects caused by EMPs that do not share the same mineralogical compositions as asbestos are not as well understood as those caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. For example, miners and others exposed to vermiculite from a mine near Libby, Montana, may not have been exposed to commercial asbestos, but the documented rise in mesothelioma cases strongly suggest that those EMPs can be as damaging to human health as asbestos.


The agency says the previous research was inconclusive partly because the analytical method used to identify airborne exposures could not differentiate between asbestos and non-asbestos fibers. The agency says the prior research seemed to suggest that the potential for an EMP to cause cancer was related to its length and width and not necessarily to chemical composition or origin.


The new plan suggests future research in several areas, including toxicology, mineralogy, epidemiology and exposure assessment. The multi-disciplinary approach will address three strategic goals:


  1. Develop a broader and clearer understanding of the important determinants of toxicity for EMPs;
  2. Develop information on occupational exposures to various EMPs and the associated health risks; and
  3. Develop improved sampling and analytical methods for asbestos fibers and other EMPs.


Populations that could be the subject of future studies include workers at talc mines in upstate New York and taconite miners in northeastern Minnesota. One potential outcome of the new research strategy is the development of criteria that could be used to predict the potential risk associated with exposure to EMPs using in vitro and in vivo testing.