Epidemiologic and pathologic data demonstrate that malignant mesothelioma occurs preferentially after exposure to long amphibole asbestos fibers. However, mineralogic studies have rarely detected such fibers in the parietal pleura. We hypothesized that the distribution of asbestos fibers in the pleura was heterogeneous and that they might concentrate in certain areas, as does coal dust in patients showing anthracotic "black spots" of the parietal pleura during thoracoscopy. We collected thoracoscopic biopsy samples from these black spots and from normal areas of the parietal pleura and lung from 14 subjects (eight with and six without asbestos exposure). Asbestos content was determined by transmission electron microscopy. In exposed subjects, mean fiber concentrations were 12.4 +/- 9.8 x 10(6) fibers/g of dry tissue in lung, 4.1 +/- 1.9 in black spots, and 0.5 +/- 0.2 in normal pleura. In unexposed patients, concentrations were 0, 0.3 +/- 0.1, and 0, respectively. Amphiboles outnumbered chrysotile in all samples. A total of 22.5% of fibers were > or = 5 microns in length in black spots. A histologic similarity of these black spots with milky spots is suggested by conventional and electron microscopy. We conclude that the distribution of asbestos fibers is heterogeneous in the parietal pleura. Indeed, the fibers concentrate in black spots, where they can reach high concentrations. These findings could explain why the parietal pleura is the target organ for mesothelioma and plaques.