While it was once thought that mesothelioma was caused only by asbestos exposure, health officials and medical researchers are now expressing growing concerns regarding another culprit: a naturally occurring fibrous substance called erionite. Much like asbestos, is harmless until it is disturbed, at which point its small particles are released into the air where they can be inhaled and then embedded into the lungs.
The first reports of mesothelioma cancer caused by erionite came in the 1970s, when villages in central Turkey saw incredibly high rates of the disease. The availability of erionite in the stone in these areas was huge, allowing villagers to use it to build their homes. In some of these villages, the rate of mesothelioma was extraordinarily high, accounting for up to 50% of all deaths. Animal studies conducted with erionite have found the substance to be between 100 and 800 times more carcinogenic than asbestos, leaving scientists to regard it as “almost certainly the most toxic naturally occurring fibrous mineral known.”
Unfortunately, these “cancer villages” are not the only areas where erionite deposits are found. Erionite exists at several sites in at least twelve states in the western U.S. Officials showed brief interest in assessing the risk in the 1980s, but those efforts have since fallen to the wayside.
Researchers are becoming concerned yet again, as instances of high erionite exposure have occurred before the dangers of the substance were well-known.
In North Dakota, gravel contaminated with erionite was used to in the pavement of over 300 miles of road, including school bus routes and parking lots. Since it can take decades for mesothelioma to develop, there is no way to know how many people were affected and how badly, but the damage may have already been done. As with asbestos, increased exposure to erionite increases the likelihood of developing the cancer.
Air samples done along these roadways and even school buses revealed erionite levels close to the erionite levels in some of the Turkish villages rocked by mesothelioma in the 1970s. Precautions have been taken in North Dakota, where knowledge of the dangers led to a ban of erionite use, and now other states are beginning to follow suit. In Oregon, the Department of Transportation conducting a study to identify erionite risks. In Montana, workers now have to wear protective gear and respirators when undergoing any project that involves disturbing the land.
If adequate precaution is taken to control and regulate erionite exposure, the risk of thousands of people developing mesothelioma can be greatly reduced. As it stands, mesothelioma cancer from asbestos exposure has claimed thousands of life, and its incidence rate is said to peak in 2045. Researchers say that there is a huge opportunity to prevent a similar surge in the coming decades.