, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 491-503

Silica, asbestos, man-made mineral fibers, and cancer

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Abstract

Approximately three million workers in the United States are estimated to be exposed to silica, man-made mineral fibers, and asbestos. The lung is the primary target organ of concern. Each of these substances is composed predominantly of silicon and oxygen; asbestos and silica are crystalline, and asbestos and man-made mineral fibers are fibers. Man-made mineral fibers and asbestos are used as insulating agents, with the former having generally replaced the latter in recent years. Silica is used in foundries, pottery, and brick making, and is encountered by miners. A meta-analysis of 16 of the largest studies with well-documented silica exposure and low probability of confounding by other occupational exposures, indicates a relative risk (RR) of 1.3 (95 percent confidence interval [CI] = 1.2-1.4). Lung cancer risks are highest and most consistent for silicotics, who have received the highest doses (RR = 2.3, CI = 2.2-2.4, across 19studies). The data for mineral fibers continue to support the International Association for Research on Cancer's 1988 judgment that mineral fibers are a possible human carcinogen (Group 2B). Recent epidemiologic studies provide little evidence for lung carcinogenicity for either glass wool or rock/slag wool. Ceramic fibers, a much less common exposure than glass wool and rock/slag wool, are of concern because of positive animal studies, but there are insufficient human data. Regarding asbestos, its carcinogenicity for the lung and mesothelium is well established. With regard to the controversy over chrysotile and mesothelioma, the data suggest chrysotile does cause mesothelioma, although it may be less potent than amphibole asbestos.