OBJECTIVE: To conduct a mineralogical study on the particles retained in the necropsied lungs of a homogenous group of asbestos miners and millers from Asbestos township (and a local reference population) and to consider the hypothesis that there is a difference in size between fibres retained in the lungs of patients with asbestosis with and without lung cancer. METHODS: Samples of lung tissue were obtained from 38 patients with asbestosis without lung cancer, 25 with asbestosis and lung cancer, and 12 with mesothelioma, from necropsied Quebec chrysotile miners and millers from Asbestos township. Fibre concentrations in the lungs of these patients were compared with those in tissue from necropsies carried out on a local reference population: men who had died of either accidental death or acute myocardial infarction between 1990 and 1992. 23 were born before 1940 and 26 after 1940. RESULTS: Geometric mean (GM) concentrations were higher in cases than in the controls for chrysotile fibres 5 to 10 microns long in patients with asbestosis with or without lung cancer; for tremolite fibres 5 to 10 microns long in all patients; for crocidolite, talc, or anthophyllite fibres 5 to 10 microns long in patients with mesothelioma; for chrysotile and tremolite fibres > or = 10 microns long in patients with asbestosis; and crocidolite, talc, or anthophyllite fibres > or = 10 microns long in patients with mesothelioma. However, median concentrations of each type of fibre in the lungs did not show any significant differences between the three disease groups. Average length to diameter ratios of the fibres were calculated to be larger in patients with asbestosis and lung cancer than in those without lung cancer for crocidolite fibres > or = 10 microns long, for chrysotile, amosite, and tremolite fibres 5 to 10 microns long, and for chrysotile and crocidolite fibres < 5 microns long. However, there was no statistical difference in the median length to diameter ratios for any type of fibres across the disease groups when they were calculated in each patient. Cumulative smoking index (pack-years) was higher in the group with asbestosis and lung cancer but was not statistically different from the two other disease groups. CONCLUSION: Lung cancers occurred in workers with asbestosis from Asbestos township who had an equal concentration of retained fibres but a tendency to a higher length to diameter ratio of amphiboles. These workers had a 29% higher average cumulative smoking index.