The vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, was in operation for over 70 yr and was contaminated with asbestos-like amphibole fibers. The mining, processing, and shipping of this vermiculite led to significant fiber inhalation exposure throughout the community, and residents of Libby have developed numerous pulmonary diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. The present study describes the separation of Libby 6-mix into respirable and nonrespirable size fractions by means of aqueous elutriation. The elutriator, designed to separate fibers with aerodynamic diameters smaller than 2.5 μm (respirable) from larger fibers, used an upward flow rate of 3.4 × 10−4 cm s−1. The resultant respirable fraction constituted only 13% of the raw Libby 6-mix mass, and less than 2% of the fibers in the elutriated fraction had aerodynamic diameters exceeding 2.5 μm. Surface area of the elutriated fibers was 5.3 m−2 g−1, compared to 0.53 m−2 g−1 for the raw fibers. There were no detectable differences in chemical composition between the larger and smaller fibers. Such harvesting of respirable fractions will allow toxicological studies to be conducted within a controlled laboratory setting, utilizing fiber sizes that may more accurately simulate historical exposure of Libby residents’ lungs. Importantly, this work describes a method that allows the use of material enriched in more uniform respirable material than raw Libby 6-mix, making comparisons with other known fiber preparations more valid on a mass basis.
©2008 Informa Healthcare USA