Driving gives you cancer.
Well, okay, it could if your regular route happens to include a gravel road that is.
And if it does you might want to roll up your windows and hold your breath while driving on it, because you may be sucking in a lungful of cancer with each breath.
A disturbing new study has found that there’s a cancer-causing mineral lurking in the gravel being used to pave some U.S. roads. And while chances are that you’ve probably never even heard of erionite, it has quite a lot in common with another natural mineral that I’m sure you have heard lots about before: asbestos.
Like asbestos, it’s only when erionite is disturbed that we start running into problems.
When, for example, you drive over gravel containing the mineral, the fibers get dislodged and end up floating in the air around you. Then when you take a breath, you get not only a lungful of air but also a bunch of unwelcome erionite fibers going along for the ride.
Once they’ve hitchhiked their way inside, the fibers become lodged in your lungs, where they can, over time, lead to a devastating form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. And let’s be honest…who hasn’t been exposed at one time or another to puffs of dust rising from a gravel road?
The study, published in a 2011 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, focuses on Dunn County in North Dakota, where, for the past 30 years, gravel containing erionite has been used on over 300 miles of road.
Researchers compared the fibers from Dunn County to erionite that they had previously studied in a Turkish village that had an unusually high rate of mesothelioma cases and deaths. Frighteningly, the fibers from Dunn Country turned out to be very similar to the Turkish fibers both in size and chemical composition.
There are large erionite deposits in states other than North Dakota, including California, Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada, and while budget constraints only allowed the research team to concentrate on a single location for this study, there’s every reason to believe that rock mined in these other states…to be used locally or exported to other states…could pose similar health risks.
And to make matters worse, it turns out that erionite has one more thing in common with its killer-cousin asbestos. Just as with asbestos exposure, there’s a super-long latency period. In fact, it can take 30 to 60 years of exposure to the mineral to cause mesothelioma.
So, in other words, what we have here is a ticking time bomb that’s just about to explode, and according to this study’s authors, we can expect cases of the cancer to soon be on a sharp rise.
Frustratingly, there’s not a whole heck of a lot that we can do about exposure right now short of avoiding areas with gravel roads and high levels of airborne erionite fibers. But we can hope that this study, and others like it, will raise awareness enough that some prevention strategies will be quickly put into place.
Meanwhile, I’ll be sure to keep my wheels off gravel roads and my eyes on the unfolding story.
“Erionite exposure in North Dakota and Turkish villages with mesothelioma,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 25, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1105887108