Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Threats Multiply In North Dakota

Even the most innocuous-looking substances can bite you on the ass:
BISMARCK, N.D. -- Scientists want to study the health effects of an asbestos-like mineral used widely in western North Dakota and linked to cancer elsewhere, but they're having a hard time finding volunteers for testing.

The state's top rock researcher and the state's chief fossil finder have signed up to find out if they've been harmed by long-term exposure to erionite, which can collect in the lungs of people who breathe it.

But not many others are biting in a part of the state where many of the roads are covered with erionite gravel mined from the nearby Killdeer Mountains.

...Eric Kehr, owner of the Buckskin Bar & Grill in Killdeer, predicts the government will have a tough time finding enough volunteers.

"Maybe we'd rather not know we have cancer, and if we stick our head in the sand maybe it will go away," he said. "What can anybody do about it anyway? There is no way to blacktop all these gravel roads, so practically speaking, it's an unsolvable problem."

State geologist Ed Murphy notified the EPA of the erionite in the region about three years ago, after he found that in Turkey, the mineral was linked to mesothelioma, an incurable form of lung cancer.

Erionite found in North Dakota differs slightly than the mineral found in Turkey, where it's a known carcinogen, Murphy said. Erionite found in North Dakota is more calcium-based; the mineral in Turkey is sodium-based.

The EPA says erionite is found in at least a dozen states in the West, but not at the levels in western North Dakota, where it's used on many rural roads. The EPA says U.S. studies also have shown that erionite causes cancer in lab rats, though the mineral is not regulated by the agency.

"I've been under cliff faces chipping out fossilized mammal bones with this stuff falling in my face, so of course I'm pretty curious to see what it's done to me," said John Hoganson, the state paleontologist.

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