The roads in North Dakota are giving people cancer

In Dunn County, North Dakota, the roads can kill you. In fact, anything you do to disturb rocks in the area, like driving or even sweeping, can kick up naturally-occurring particles that lodge in your body and give you a rare kind of lung cancer up to 30 years later. Dunn County, you see, is home to a lot of rocks containing erionite, an asbestos-like substance that's highly toxic. Unfortunately, nobody knew that until very recently. And so at least 300 miles of roads in North Dakota are paved with the stuff.

What do you do when you discover that you've built your county's infrastructure out of poison rocks?

So far, nothing is being done. This week, a group of researchers published an article about the problem in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the dangers in the county's roads. A release about the study explained:

Michele Carbone and colleagues found that several of the county's parking lots, playgrounds, and roads, including school bus routes, are paved with erionite-laden gravel. Activities such as raking, sweeping, and driving can release the carcinogen into the air, the authors found. The study revealed that the airborne concentration of erionite along roadsides, indoors, and inside school buses in the county equaled or exceeded that found in Boyali, a Turkish village with a high incidence of erionite-induced malignant cancer.

The cancer is called malignant mesothelioma, and there is an epidemic of it in Boyali. Carbone, who studied this phenomenon with a group of cancer specialists and geologists, worries that a similar epidemic might strike citizens of Dunn County as they age, especially among people who were exposed to erionite as children. School buses are an area of intense hazard, as the buses stir up erionite as they zoom down local roads, leaving both the children and bus driver in danger of repeated exposure to airborne particles. Like asbestos, erionite is only dangerous when it becomes airborne and people inhale it.

The roads in North Dakota are giving people cancer

At left, you can see the fibers from erionite found in North Dakota (top) and Turkey (bottom). They are similar enough that researchers found they could both cause the same cellular damage that leads to lung cancer. Carbone and her team expressed concern that nobody in Dunn County seems concerned about containing the erionite, partly because the disease takes so long to manifest that they have yet to see the damage it can do. The scientists write:

In the past, similar situations have often gone unrecognized for many decades in part due to long latency periods, small exposed populations, and undiscerning surveillance systems. For example, widespread asbestos contamination and associated disease in the community of Libby, Montana, went unnoticed by public health officials until 1999, despite warning signs decades earlier. Area residents in ND have expressed skepticism about the potential for health effects from erionite exposures. Similar skepticism prevailed in the first half of the past century about asbestos and it was only when the number of asbestos-related deaths increased to the magnitude of an epidemic that strict preventive measures were implemented. We hope that the lessons learned from such experiences will help to prevent a possible new wave of malignant mesothelioma in the United States that could be caused by erionite.

How much more evidence do you need than that this substance is definitely in North Dakota's mountains, is definitely in the roads, and has definitely killed many people in Turkey? Will more people have to die before roads in North Dakota become non-toxic again?

Read the full scientific article via PNAS

Photo of Dunn, ND, by bentrider