Evidence and reconstruction of airborne asbestos from unconventional environmental samples

James S. Webber, Myron Getman, Tony J. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The understanding of historical ambient asbestos concentrations is critical to exposure mapping and retrospective health impact studies involving asbestos related diseases. Two presentations at the University of Montana Center for Environmental Health Sciences Asbestos Conference (July 28, 2005) introduced novel methods for detecting evidence of past airborne asbestos contamination. In each of these studies, transmission electron microscopy was used to identify and measure asbestos fibers collected in samples from unconventional environmental sources. In the first study, paleolimnology, analytical transmission electron microscopy, particle-separation techniques, and empirical aerosol-sediment modeling were combined to provide the first measurements of airborne asbestos concentrations prior to the 1980s. In an upstate New York study area, airborne concentrations of chrysotile followed its 20th-century usage, with highest concentrations near mid-century (∼0.1 fibers/cm 3), followed by a decrease in the last quarter century. Airborne concentrations of anthophyllite asbestos (a contaminant from nearby talc mines and mills) increased from <0.004 to 0.022 fibers/cm3 from 1847 to 1995. In the second study, tree bark and core samples were collected from areas near the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine in Libby,MT. We originally hypothesized that trees in the areas surrounding the mine could serve as reservoirs for ambient amphibole fibers. Though gravimetric reduction of a tree core sample did not indicate the presence of amphibole fibers, transmission electron microscopy analysis of bark samples yielded substantial amphibole fiber concentrations ranging from 14 to 260 million amphibole fibers/cm2. Based on these preliminary results, we conclude that trees in the Libby valley can serve as reservoirs for amphibole fibers, and that a continued potential for exposure exists for those who harvest contaminated wood.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)969-973
Number of pages5
JournalInhalation Toxicology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Oct 1 2006


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