We’ve yet to Ban Asbestos – but do we Need to Ban Erionite too?

For decades people have been aware of the dangers of asbestos, but recent reports are beginning to suggest that there a is new mineral posing a similar public health hazard to the United States.  Erionite, the mesothelioma-causing rock once thought to be only native to Turkey, has been found in large deposits throughout the western part of the U.S.  Gravel that has been contaminated with erionite has been used for decades to pave a variety of things from roads to parking lots and public areas.  Unfortunately, these findings beg the question: are we on the brink of another outbreak of asbestos-related diseases, this time caused by erionite rather than asbestos exposure? 

In 2006, the North Dakota Department of Public Health became aware of this potential problem and quickly recommended the end of using erionite-containing gravel.  They also began testing for the mineral before mining for gravel.  However, it is believed that erionite-containing gravel is still being shipped outside the state.

Surprisingly, these measures are not sitting well with all residents of the state.  Many tax-payers feel as though officials are jumping the gun with the data currently presented.  Some experts have said that since there has not been an increase in mesothelioma cases, erionite does not pose the same health hazards as asbestos.  However, mesothelioma has a long latency period and symptoms sometimes take 10-50 years to appear.  This timeframe is fast approaching in connection with the start of the use of erionite gravel.  Hopefully a sad precedent has not been set where a material’s dangers were ignored and workers were put at risk handling the mineral.  The comparison is frightening: concentrations of airborne erionite in Dunn County, North Dakota, equal or exceed those in Boyali, a Turkish village with a 6.25% mesothelioma-related mortality rate.

Dunn County may end up resembling Libby, Montana.  Libby was devastated by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis due to years of asbestos mining that occurred nearby.  The asbestos crisis in Libby is considered to be one of the largest public health emergencies in U.S. history.

Now is the time to prevent meosthelioma from being spread to the masses, but will they listen before another tragedy strikes?  Only after we learn from our past mistakes can we ban asbestos and keep families safe by acknowledging the dangers of other, similar minerals like erionite.