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AP Photo Paleontologist John Hoganson displays erionite rocks and a fossilized skull from a 25-million-year-old sheep-like animal found in erionite on Thursday in Bismarck.

Researchers want mineral information

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BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota's top rock researcher and the state's chief fossil finder have spent decades exposed to an asbestos-like mineral found in western North Dakota that is similar to a kind linked to cancer in lab rats and in people in Turkey.

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State geologist Ed Murphy and state paleontologist John Hoganson want to know if erionite has caused them health problems, so they volunteered for a government-funded study to find out.

Hardly anyone else has joined them.

State health officials and the Environmental Protection Agency want to test about 50 western North Dakota residents who have had long-term exposure to erionite, which can collect in the lungs of people who breathe it. But fewer than 10 people have signed up for the study, said Mark Dihle, a scientist with the state Health Department's air quality division.

"We haven't had quite the response we're looking for," he said. The department has now extended the sign-up deadline from April 17 to June 12.

Eric Kehr, owner of the Buckskin Bar & Grill in Killdeer, said most people in the town would show up for a benefit for a neighbor in need, but he predicts the government will have a tough time finding volunteers for the erionite study.

"Maybe we'd rather not know we have cancer, and if we stick our head in the sand maybe it will go away," he said. "What can anybody do about it anyway? There is no way to blacktop all these gravel roads, so practically speaking, it's an unsolvable problem."

In Killdeer, a western North Dakota town of about 700, gravel containing erionite comes from rock mined from the nearby Killdeer Mountains. A ballpark covered with gravel containing erionite was closed three years as a precaution, and the county voluntarily quit using gravel from the Killdeer Mountains until the study is completed.

University of Cincinnati scientists will conduct the study with hopes of completing it this year, Dihle said.

Volunteers chosen for the study will be paid $100, Dihle said. A hospital in Dickinson will perform chest X-rays and CT scans, which will be sent to researchers in Ohio, he said.

The government will not pay for treatment of any medical problems that may be found in individuals as a result of the tests, Dihle said.

"I've been under cliff faces chipping out fossilized mammal bones with this stuff falling in my face, so of course I'm pretty curious to see what it's done to me," said Hoganson, the state paleontologist.

Murphy, the state geologist, notified the EPA of the erionite in the region about three years ago, after he found that in Turkey, the mineral was linked to mesothelioma, an incurable form of lung cancer.

Erionite found in North Dakota differs slightly than the mineral found in Turkey, where it's a known carcinogen, Murphy said. Erionite found in North Dakota is more calcium based; the mineral in Turkey is sodium based, he said.

The EPA says erionite is found in at least a dozen states in the West, but not at the levels in western North Dakota, where it's used on many rural roads. The EPA says U.S. studies also have shown that erionite causes cancer in lab rats, though the mineral is not regulated by the agency.

Joyce Ackerman, an EPA coordinator in Denver, said the North Dakota study will cost more than $100,000, and cannot be done without public help.

"We really want people to volunteer," Ackerman said. "We're trying to find some real world answers, not hypotheticals. All we've got now is this situation in Turkey and a few animal studies."

State Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, believes the fears over erionite are overblown. She and her nine siblings grew up in the Killdeer Mountains and she has never heard of a case of mesothelioma in the county, she said.

"I grew up playing in that gravel pit, and if there is anyone that has been exposed to it, it would certainly be me," Meyer said.

Still, Meyer said she will sign up for the study and will encourage residents to do the same. She said she hopes the tests will halt the fears.

"I think they (EPA and the Health Department) are making it a concern, but most people around here think it's silly," Meyer said.

Rather than use gravel from the Killdeer Mountains for free, Meyer said, Dunn County now has to purchase gravel for its roads outside the county. "It's costing hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said.

Murphy said he's been exposed to erionite for about 30 years while working in the region as a geologist, climbing on rocks and driving on the roads.

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