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North Dakota workers at increased risk of erionite exposure

Earlier this week, we wrote about the increasing awareness of the risk of mesothelioma as a result of exposure to erionite, a mineral that is found in the soil of at least 12 states in the western U.S. Recently, officials with the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended that employers take a series of steps to protect their employees from the dangers of erionite exposure.

Because mesothelioma doesn't develop for several decades after exposure to erionite, little is still known about the long-term effect of erionite exposure on workers in the construction industry and similar fields. However, air sampling in western North Dakota has indicated that residents of the area may have a particularly high risk of being exposed to erionite and developing mesothelioma.

A 2005 study found that gravel containing erionite had been used to construct several hundred miles of unpaved roads in the state. Additional air sampling near those roads revealed high levels of erionite, especially after vehicles drove on them.

Following that and other research, the North Dakota Department of Transportation banned the use of gravel containing erionite in state road construction projects. However, several private companies and local governments continue to use the hazardous material to build roads.

Currently, western North Dakota is in the midst of an unprecedented oil boom, drawing workers and their families to the area in record numbers. As a result, construction workers are tearing up those erionite-laden roads and building new infrastructure, likely disturbing the erionite fibers in the soil.

There will likely be much more information about erionite as state and federal officials work to limit the exposure to the deadly mineral. We will continue to update our blog with any new developments.

Source: MSNBC, "U.S. warns workers on cancer-causing mineral erionite," Myron Levin, Nov. 22, 2011

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