Abstract

The rising awareness about the risk due to asbestos environmental exposure has led to a new interest in the investigation of non-regulated mineral fibers. Evidence of chronic diseases has been described in individuals exposed to naturally occurring asbestiform (NOA) minerals in Turkey (erionite), Italy (fluoro-edenite), and the United States (winchite/rictherite). In New Caledonia, an increased incidence of asbestos-related diseases was correlated with the natural occurrence of fibrous serpentines chrysotile and fibro-lamellar antigorite in outcrops, roadways, and soils. A minor amount of tremolite asbestos was also observed, increasing the health hazard. By adopting a precautionary principle, New Caledonia legislation classified antigorite as regulated asbestos, even if limited toxicity assessment is available. Caledonian antigorite exhibits a wide range of natural shapes, morphologies, and degrees of alteration as a result of pedogenic alteration induced by subtropical conditions. As the alteration increases, lamellar antigorite gradually cleaves into fibrous-like particles, assuming a fibro-lamellar habit. An increase in the emission of inhalable (potentially asbestiform) fibers in air was observed. To understand this mechanism, a multidisciplinary mineralogical and geochemical investigation was carried out. Additionally, several in vitro tests have been performed on three antigorite samples, subjected to different levels of alteration, to collect preliminary information on antigorite toxicity. Alteration modifies the surface reactivity of antigorite. The circulation of fluids induces a mechanical stress and an elemental exchange at mineral/water interface, promoting the loss of cohesion of the mineral structure and affecting the surface chemistry and toxicity of fibrous (asbestiform) antigorite.

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