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Study: Erionite Dust in Gravel Roads Can Cause Cancer

House Republicans are waging war against environmental and health regulations. Rep. Kristi Noem's vague flailings on this issue have included her vaunted amendment to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from passing rules on rural dust. "...[D]ust is a part of rural living," Noem wheezes.

Getting run over by a tractor is also a part of rural living, but that doesn't mean we don't try to prevent it.

A new study from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center says that rural dust may be lethal, too:

As school buses drive down the gravel roads in Dunn County, North Dakota, they stir up more than dirt. The clouds of dust left in their wake contain such high levels of the mineral erionite that those who breathe in the air every day are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer of the membranes around the lungs, new research shows. Erionite is a natural mineral fiber that shares similar physical similarities with asbestos. When it's disturbed by human activity, fibers can become airborne and lodge themselves in people's lungs. Over time, the embedded fibers can make cells of the lung grow abnormally, leading to mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer most often associated with the related mineral asbestos ["New Study Finds Cancer-Causing Mineral in U.S. Road Gravel," University of Hawaii Cancer Center, press release, 2011.07.25].

Researchers have linked erionite to mesothelioma in Turkey, where houses have been built with stone containing the mineral. Need we worry?

Erionite is not regulated in the United States, but federal, state, and local agencies are working to reduce current use of erionite, with an eye toward dealing with the erionite gravel already in place. Erionite deposits are present in several U.S. states, including California, Oregon, North and South Dakota, Arizona, and Nevada [Matt Goad, "Miller Presents Study on Erionite Exposure and Mesothelioma," NIEHS: Environmental Factor, January 2011].

I wonder if Rep. Noem is really more afraid of environmental regulations than she is of cancer. I'd rather the EPA be part of rural living than the dust on my road be part of rural dying.


  1. Kelly Fuller 2011.07.26

    The North Dakota Department of Health has been looking into the erionite issue for a while. Here's a link to their erionite page. And here's a PowerPoint from the Montana Department of Transportion that shows some of the South Dakota erionite locations.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.07.26

    Thanks for those maps, Kelly! In South Dakota it looks like mainly the Badlands and Slim Buttes... if I understand slide #6 correctly, those are places with the right kind of geology for erionite, not confirmed locations of erionite, right? I also notice that the end of the slideshow mentions actions taken in Montana and North Dakota, but none in South Dakota. Does that mean our state environmental and transportation officials haven't looked into this problem?

  3. Kelly Fuller 2011.07.27

    Cory, I believe slide #6 is saying that those areas have the right geology for erionite, which I would read as "best to assume it's out there." Whether that translates to anyone getting exposed, who knows. Anybody been making gravel in those locations and spreading it around? I would be surprised if the state of South Dakota had studied this. North Dakota jumped on it because they knew they had a potential problem - they've also got more money for things like health studies.

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