Abstract

An unusual occurrence of asbestiform sepiolite, filling veins in the antigorite serpentinites of the Voltri Unit exposed in a borrow pit (now reclaimed) in the Deiva forest, near Sassello, NW Italy, was investigated with an in-depth analytical approach aimed at studying its crystal-chemistry and structure and evaluating its possible hazards for human health. Optical microscopy and scanning electron microscopy (energy-dispersive spectroscopy mode) proved that these sepiolite fibres, apparently up to several cm long, are made up of bundles of thinner fibrils (or laths: average length > 100 µm; thickness ≈ 80 nm), with a composition consistent to that reported in the literature. The dehydration process was monitored through thermo-gravimetric analyses and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, performed at increasing T; the latter, in particular, showed the presence of moderate amounts of aliphatic hydrocarbons – not yet identified thoroughly – associated with the sample. The crystal structure refinement with the Rietveld method showed no relevant difference from the literature models, although a peculiar distribution of zeolitic H2O molecules was observed. The geological context suggests that the Sassello sepiolite precipitated from hydrothermal fluids, which were saturated in Mg and silica by the interaction of the host serpentinites. The same setting favoured formation of abiotic hydrocarbons, by means of the Fischer–Tropsch reaction. The extremely long and flexible fibrils (length/width aspect ratio >> 3) of this sepiolite specimen could represent a serious hazard for human health if air dispersed and inhaled; also, its atypical association with hydrocarbons (only reported once previously) might even favour further fragmentation in thinner units.

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