It has been more than 40 years since occupational crocidolite exposure in South African miners was found to be associated with development of malignant mesothelial tumors 30 to 40 years later. Similar cases were not seen in the amosite and chrysotile miners. Since then, epidemiological and toxicological knowledge have increased enormously, but mortality continues to rise steeply (5% to 10% per year) in most industrialized countries. Even with widespread asbestos abatement efforts, this increase is likely to continue in Western Europe and the United State well into the next century, at least until 2020. Unregulated use of asbestos in less industrialized countries may cause the epidemic to continue throughout the next century in those regions. Asbestos abatement seems to be successful as evidenced by a decline in the proportion of patients with peritoneal tumors, which are the most common malignancies in heavily exposed individuals. Whereas in the 1960s peritoneal tumors comprised up to 30% of the total, in recent years the proportion has fallen to about 10%, This changing ratio could also be due to the steady increase in pleural tumors. The difficulty in formulating the connection as to the etiology of mesothelioma resulted from an unforeseeable difference in the carcinogenicity of various asbestos and mineral fiber types and was compounded by the very long latency of the disease. Unfortunately, the use of a single term, "asbestos," to describe at least five fibrous silicate minerals, each with unique physical, chemical, and biological properties and not infrequently and naturally admixed, severely hampered scientific investigation into the occupational health risks. The field became confused and filled with debate. At the heart of the fiber type controversy lies a fundamentally differing view of the importance of biopersistence of various asbestos fibers in carcinogenesis. This review will deal with the epidemiology of mesothelioma with particular attention to the studies that elucidate the impact of various asbestos fiber types on the etiology of the disease.
Copyright 2002 by W.B. Saunders Company.