There is considerable experimental evidence that asbestos fibres are taken up by epithelial cells, and that uptake of fibres is associated with various deleterious, particularly mutagenic, effects. It is not known, however, if asbestos fibres are taken up by human bronchial epithelial cells in vivo. To investigate this question, the amosite asbestos content of the mucosa of seven different airways and four parenchymal sites supplied by these airways in six necropsy lungs from heavily exposed never-smoking long term shipyard and insulation workers without asbestosis was examined. Amosite asbestos was readily found in moderately high concentration in all parenchymal samples, but 33 of 40 airway samples that could be evaluated showed no amosite fibres. The seven positive airways had fibre concentrations that were always much lower than the parenchymal concentrations, and these very few fibres may have been contaminants from the parenchyma. These data suggest that, at least in non-smokers, amosite asbestos either does not penetrate into or does not accumulate in human airway mucosa. These findings also call into question the idea that asbestos acts as a direct airway carcinogen in humans.
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