Exposure to asbestos was evaluated in 131 patients with pleural malignant mesothelioma in the Paris area between 1986 and 1992 using data from a detailed specific questionnaire and light microscopy analysis of the retention of asbestos bodies in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid or lung tissue. Probable or definite exposure to significant levels of asbestos dust was identified in only 48 (36.6%) subjects, and significant asbestos body counts (above 1 asbestos body/ml in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid or 1000 asbestos bodies/g of dry lung tissue) were found in only 45 (34.3%) subjects. Overall 50 subjects had experienced exposure to only low levels of asbestos or no exposure at all and showed no significant retention of asbestos bodies in the biological sample analysed. Previous studies have shown that light microscopy may be useful in the identification of subjects with previous exposure to asbestos. In this study, apart from cases with obvious exposure to asbestos, a large group of subjects seemed to have a history of exposure or lung retention of asbestos bodies suggestive of very low levels of cumulative exposure, similar to those described in the general population.
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