The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health called for more protective measures on job sites for workers who may be exposed to erionite, a mineral similar to asbestos. NIOSH warned that erionite is America’s next mineral danger.
Erionite, like asbestos, has been proven to cause mesothelioma cancer and a variety of other respiratory illnesses. Some research has shown erionite fibers to be even more dangerous than asbestos.
Risk of Erionite Exposure in the U.S.
Erionite is prevalent in the Western United States, found mostly in gravel quarries and road projects. It is found mostly in Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and southeastern parts of California.
The advisory noted that erionite was responsible for “remarkably high,” rates of mesothelioma in previous studies done in remote villages in Turkey.
Unlike asbestos, erionite has been largely unregulated in the United States, but the recent expansion of pipelines, power lines and roads in remote Western areas has prompted new concerns.
In October, scientists and governmental officials met for an erionite workshop in North Carolina, hoping to formulate a plan to address the growing concerns of road construction workers who are using gravel that contains erionite.
“At a minimum, we can begin to start to educate the public and policymakers,” said Aubrey Miller, M.D., senior medical advisor at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who chaired the meeting last month. “I certainly don’t want to count bodies later.”
What is Erionite?
Erionite is formed from volcanic ash that has been weathered by water. It is part of the zeolite family of minerals. It is mostly harmless in the ground until it is disturbed and its fibers become airborne.
The NIOSH advisory listed 14 recommendations to control any potential hazards. Many of the recommendations are similar to those used in the abatement of asbestos, including wetting down material thought to contain erionite. Although the recommendations are voluntary, they might be the precursor of things to come. They included the use of respirators and other protective equipment.
“From the evidence at hand … it’s prudent and it’s reasonable to approach controlling exposures as one would control asbestos,” said NIOSH spokesperson Fred Blosser.