Inhalation of asbestos fibers causes cell damage and increases in cell proliferation in various cell types of the lung and pleura in vivo. By using a colony-forming efficiency (CFE) assay, the cytotoxicity and proliferative potential of three mineral samples containing various proportions of fibrous talc were compared to NIEHS samples of crocidolite and chrysotile asbestos in cell types giving rise to tracheobronchial carcinomas, i.e., hamster tracheal epithelial (HTE) cells, and mesotheliomas, i.e., rat pleural mesothelial (RPM) cells. Characterization of mineralogical composition, surface area, and size distributions as well as proportions of fibers in all mineral samples allowed examination of data by various dose parameters including equal weight concentrations, numbers of fibers >5 micron in length, and equivalent surface areas. Exposure to samples of asbestos caused increased numbers of colonies of HTE cells, an indication of proliferative potential, but fibrous talc did not. RPMs did not exhibit increased CFE in response to either asbestos or talc samples. Decreased numbers of colonies, an indication of cytotoxicity, were observed in both cell types and were more striking at lower weight concentrations of asbestos in comparison to talc samples. However, all samples of fibrous minerals produced comparable dose-response effects when dose was measured as numbers of fibers greater than 5 micron or surface area. The unique proliferative response of HTE cells to asbestos could not be explained by differences in fiber dimensions or surface areas, indicating an important role of mineralogical composition rather than size of fibers.