Most of us have seen those television ads encouraging anyone who has ever even heard of asbestos to join a lawsuit for those suffering from mesothelioma—a deadly form of cancer caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. It turns out that risk may be realer, and come from a decidedly more natural cause, than many could have guessed—especially for those living in the West.
A story on fairwarning.com—a "nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues"—highlights studies that show a naturally occurring mineral found in 13 states—including southwest Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada—is tied to cases of mesothelioma. Erionite is a naturally occurring mineral that is found in areas where volcanic ash and rock have been eroded by alkaline water. It just so happens that the majority of these deposits are clustered in the Great Basin.
According to the article, erionite is harmless until it is disturbed but then tiny particles can be inhaled—just like asbestos.
The link between the disease and the mineral was first discovered in the 1970s when villagers in Turkey were being stricken at an alarming rate. Only blips of interest have arisen in the United States over the decades, but word has started to spread, especially when officials in North Dakota realized they had spread gravel containing erionite across 300 miles of unpaved roads. Road dust containing erionite have also been found in Nevada, and crews in Montana are required to wear protective suits and respirators when working on a specific area of highway constructed with fill material containing erionite.
The Fairwarning story also states that the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the process of mapping the location of all deposits to make sure workers don't unknowingly disturb them in the future.
A push to not only raise awareness of erionite and its health hazards but to create some regulations for testing, use and safety is now growing, including a planned presentation at the Institutes of Health.