A few decades ago, erionite was not considered a potential health hazard particularly since little risk of exposure was observed. It wasn’t until evidence linking exposure to this mineral to serious health complications such as mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer) and lung cancer was found.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “Erionite could be America’s next mineral danger.”
What is Erionite?
Erionite is a naturally occurring brittle, fibrous mineral belonging to a group of silicate minerals known as Zeolites.
The mineral is commonly found in areas where rock and volcanic ash have been weathered by water, typically alkaline water. This mineral forms fibrous masses in the hollows of rock formations and are usually clear or white in color.
Just like asbestos, the mineral only poses a health hazard when disturbed and fibers are released into the air.
When inhaled, these fibers enter the lungs and lodge in the mesothelium lining of the lungs, also known as Pleural lining. Their microscopic size allows them to bypass the lungs’ filtration system with great ease. Exposure also increases the victim’s risk of developing lung cancer and fibrogenic lung disease.
Various studies have found that erionite may be the most dangerous mineral in existence. In fact, it may be 100-800 times more carcinogenic than asbestos.
Erionite Risk of Exposure
Decades ago, asbestos was the only known cause of mesothelioma. It wasn’t until tens of villagers in a Turkish village began to develop mesothelioma symptoms. Years, later, mesothelioma had claimed more than 50% deaths of those who showed the symptoms.
One investigation found that the victims had been exposed to erionite as their homes had been constructed with soil containing the mineral.
Further studies carried out in the United States found that the mineral is more prevalent in the Western United States, particularly in gravel quarries and road projects.
A large amount of erionite was found in gravel that had been used to pave hundreds of miles of roads. Its fibers were also found on and in vehicles.
The mineral is also found in some commercial zeolite products and certain materials used for home construction. This has been found to increase risk of exposure to workers and members of the public who use these products.
Common commercial uses of other zeolites include soil conditioners, pet litters, wastewater treatment, animal feed, and gas absorbents.
Unlike asbestos, erionite is largely unregulated in the United States. However, the recent expansion of power lines, roads, and pipelines has prompted new concerns.
Various states are now taking strict measures to avoid exposure. For example, the use of gravel containing this mineral is now banned in North Dakota. Other states such as Montana, South Dakota, and Oregon are following suit.
Government officials and scientists are in the process of designing a plan to address the growing concerns of road construction workers using gravels containing erionite. They have come up with various risk reduction recommendations to limit exposure of workers involved in road construction work.
There is also a plan to educate policymakers and the public about risks of exposure and prevention measures.