We studied one sample of commercial sepiolite and two samples of commercial vermiculite--clay minerals proposed as replacements for asbestos--and tested in vitro their abilities to activate complement, to lyse erythrocytes, and to elicit the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) with human polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) or bovine alveolar macrophages (AM); their behavior was compared with that of asbestos fibers obtained from the Union International Contra Cancer (UICC) as reference standards, as well as with kaolinite and illite, main members of the clay mineral family. Since in short-term in vitro tests the biological activity of mineral particles seems especially related to the active sites on their surface, we first measured the specific surface area of each mineral. Sepiolite was unreactive in two of the three tests we used (complement activation and ROS production) and able to lyse a minimal percentage of red blood cells. Vermiculite was shown to be incapable of activating complement, to have a moderate hemolytic activity and a high ability to elicite ROS production, although lower than that of chrysotile. Sepiolite, therefore, might be of more interest than vermiculite, given the low level of biological effects detected during the tests used to compare both clay minerals with asbestos fibres. The ROS production does not seem to require phagocytosis. A high ROS production was observed with kaolinite: this result casts doubt on the ability of pathogenic mineral dusts in vitro to induce a greater release of ROS than nonpathogenic mineral dusts.
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