There is increasing evidence that fibre size and shape play an important part in the production of health effects related to asbestos. The dimensions of airborne fibres collected at various stages of fibre processing in three mines and six mills producing three types of asbestos were measured using phase contrast light microscopy and transmission electron microscopy. Airborne fibres of different asbestos types had appreciably different size and shape distributions. For a given asbestos type, fibres collected at different stages of processing differed in their size distributions but the differences were considerably less than between fibre types. Most of the airborne fibres to which miners and millers were exposed were short and thin and thus respirable. The physical properties which best differentiated crocidolite fibres from other types of asbestos and which had higher values determined for crocidolite fibres than those obtained for the other types, were median aspect ratio and the proportion of long thin fibres--that is, fibres less than or equal to 0.2 micron in diameter and greater than 5 micron in length as the percentage of total fibres. The median true diameter of amosite fibres was about four and three times higher than the median true diameters of chrysotile and crocidolite fibers respectively. The median true length of amosite fibres was more than four and two times higher than the median true lengths of chrysotile and crocidolite fibres respectively. The observed differences in size and shape of airborne fibres have important implications for the setting of work environmental standards and in explaining differences in health risks associated with different types of fibre.
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