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Environmental Factor, March 2012

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USGS support to advance erionite research

By Cindy Loose

Logo for: USGS- Science for a changing world
Aubrey Miller, M.D.

Miller is the NIEHS lead for asbestos and erionite research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Weis, Ph.D.

Weis is the NIEHS Office of the Director lead on engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) research. He is interested in the similarities in physical characteristics among ENMs and mineral fibers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A new award from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will enable scientists from NIEHS and elsewhere to gather and explore the mysteries and hazards of a fibrous mineral thought to be many times more toxic than asbestos. The funding announced Feb. 8 will support working group retreats at the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colo.

A naturally occurring mineral listed as a carcinogen in the NTP Report on Carcinogens, erionite is linked to increased risks of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and fibrogenic lung disease in Turkey. Deposits of the mineral have been identified in at least 12 U.S. states, according to USGS scientists (see text box).

Despite erionite’s potential threat to public health, most people have never heard of it and research is limited. There are no standards for mining or using rock containing erionite, and it has been used in at least one state to pave hundreds of miles of roads.

Raising awareness in the public health community

Last fall, NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., organized and chaired an NIEHS-sponsored workshop that focused specifically on understanding the science, toxicology, and health implications of this mineral fiber. “We already know that erionite is a deadly substance. Based on what we have learned, we need to raise public awareness and, at the very least, prevent further exposure,” said NIEHS Senior Toxicologist Chris Weis, Ph.D, who also helped plan the workshop.

One of the immediate results of last fall’s workshop, attended by 30 scientists from a wide variety of disciplines, was a very rapid worker advisory issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), warning of the dangers of erionite and listing protective measures to avoid exposure. The workshop also resulted in the development of the proposal to the Powell Center, which will cover travel and associated costs for meetings there over the next two years. The new award will enable researchers to continue their directed collaboration on erionite issues at state-of-the-art facilities designed for this purpose. The interdisciplinary erionite proposal, prepared by Miller and Gregory Meeker, a geologist with USGS, is one of five awarded by the Powell Center in 2012.

“The grant will act as a catalyst for new ideas,” said Miller. “Working collectively, people who bring different perspectives and areas of expertise can advance much more quickly on what is a complicated and important public health problem.”

One focus area cited by workshop participants is to update old maps showing locations of erionite deposits in the U.S. Such locations can then undergo further evaluation and, where indicated, the public and policymakers could be made aware of any potential dangers. Energies will also be focused on standardizing mineral identification, sampling and analysis strategies, understanding exposures, and public health prevention.

The team of scientists who will coordinate research and share findings, thanks to the Powell Center support, include experts from NIEHS, NIOSH, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the universities of Cincinnati, Hawaii, Nevada, and North Dakota.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer supporting staff at the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

Erionite in the scientific literature

Erionite was originally a hot topic in the 1970’s, after high rates of mesothelioma were identified in Turkey. Erionite, released when the rock is disturbed, has created cancer villages in parts of Turkey where rock containing erionite has been used for decades as a building material. In the worst hit villages in some years, almost half of all deaths have been from malignant mesothelioma, according to a study published in BMJ. Under normal circumstances mesothelioma is rare, affecting about one in a million people.

Interest in erionite in the U.S. spiked last year, after publication of a study led by Miller and Michele Carbone, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. In this study, researchers took air samples from Dunn County, N.D., and from Turkish villages where high rates of mesothelioma were known to be associated with erionite exposure. The study found that airborne erionite concentrations measured in N.D. along roadsides, indoors, and inside vehicles, including school buses, equaled or exceeded concentrations in Boyali, a village in Turkey, where 6.24 percent of all deaths are caused by malignant mesothelioma.

Lack of awareness resulted in stone laced with erionite being ground into gravel and used to pave approximately 300 miles of road in Dunn County, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caution that disease caused by exposure may go unrecognized for decades, because of a latency period for mesothelioma of 30 years or more.


Baris YI, Sahin AA, Ozesmi M, Kerse I, Ozen E, Kolacan B, Altinörs M, Göktepeli A.. 1978. An outbreak of pleural mesothelioma and chronic fibrosing pleurisy in the village of Karain/Urgüp in Anatolia. Thorax 1978 Apr;33(2):181-192.

Carbone M, Baris YI, Bertino P, Brass B, Comertpay S, Dogan AU, Gaudino G, Jube S, Kanodia S, Partridge CR, Pass HI, Rivera ZS, Steele I, Tuncer M, Way S, Yang H, Miller A. 2011. Erionite exposure in North Dakota and Turkish villages with mesothelioma .Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 108(33):13618-13623.

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