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Group Gathers for Asbestos and Related Fibers Meeting

By Rebecca Wilson
January 2010

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Birnbaum told the audience that the papers emerging from the workshop would help advance research on the health effects of exposure to asbestos and related mineral fibers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Maureen Gwinn of EPA, center, and Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., far right, of NIEHS SRP
Shown above during the presentations are Maureen Gwinn of EPA, center, and Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., far right, of NIEHS SRP, who gave opening remarks. Thompson called the meeting "a different kind of workshop" that would end with a document.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Scott Masten, Ph.D., above
Among several scientists from NIEHS and NTP at the meeting was Scott Masten, Ph.D., above, who participated in planning the workshop. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Brown University's Agnes Kane, M.D., Ph.D.
In her discussion of pleural endpoints, Brown University's Agnes Kane, M.D., Ph.D., described the anatomical differences among species that make extrapolation of data from asbestos experiments to humans so challenging. "There's a lot more we don't know about these [asbestos and related mineral fiber] diseases than we do know." (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

NIEHS attendees included, left to right, Mike Humble, Ph.D., Heather Henry, Ph.D., and Steve Kleeberger, Ph.D.
NIEHS attendees included, left to right, Health Scientist Administrators Mike Humble, Ph.D., Heather Henry, Ph.D., and Acting Deputy Director Steve Kleeberger, Ph.D., who is a respiratory biologist.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS scientists, federal partners, representatives from industry, and members of the academic community gathered in Chapel Hill, NC, Dec. 16-17 to discuss the state of the science on asbestos and develop recommendations for future work.

The NIEHS, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) sponsored the two-day meeting.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., opened the public session of the meeting by stressing the importance of moving beyond the traditional definition of asbestos. She pointed to three central questions participants should strive to better understand:

  • What do researchers know about the modes and mechanism of actions of all fiber characteristics on health outcomes?
  • What characteristics of these fibers drive the health effects of exposure?
  • What future research is necessary to answer remaining data gaps?

More interdisciplinary training and low dose research needed

The workshop began with six small working-group sessions, with each addressing specific aspects of research or health endpoints in depth. The topics included pulmonary and non-pulmonary health effects, the role of gene mutation, factors affecting disease susceptibility, and exposure anomalies.

After they summarized the state of the science in these areas during a plenary presentation of key findings, workshop participants met in four interdisciplinary groups to address confidence areas, data gaps, and research needs. Among the recommendations was a nearly unanimous call for graduate students to be trained in interdisciplinary research methods to interact with scientists from a wide range of disciplines. 

When discussing data gaps and research needs, researchers expressed a need for studies conducted at ever-lower doses, in response to industrial exposure patterns seen since OHSA began regulating asbestos in the 1970s. Most laboratory and environmental exposure case studies involve high doses, far above the levels encountered in modern occupational settings. However, even at low doses, asbestos may cause health problems.

While most research to date has involved diseases of the heart and lungs, workshop participants stressed the need to investigate endpoints beyond these two systems. This is important because, as Birnbaum pointed out, "If you only look where you've always looked, that's all you're ever going to find."

Meeting conclusions will be published

Writing groups will compile notes and materials from the workshop into a consensus document for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. In addition, scientists attending the workshop prepared six white papers in advance of the meeting that they will submit for publication in a peer-reviewed journal as a set of state-of-knowledge review articles.

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

Columbia University Professor of Radiation Oncology Tom Hei, Ph.D.
Columbia University Professor of Radiation Oncology Tom Hei, Ph.D., joked about the graying of his colleagues in asbestos research. "We do need fresh blood in the community," he said. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

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