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Volunteers come forward for mineral study

BISMARCK (AP) -- State health officials say enough volunteers have signed up to study the health effects of an asbestos-like mineral used widely on roads in western North Dakota.

Terry O'Clair, who heads the air quality division for the state Health Department, said 33 people signed up by Friday's deadline for the study to find out if they have been harmed by long-term exposure to erionite. The mineral, which can collect in the lungs of people who breathe it, has been linked to cancer in lab rats.

State health officials and the Environmental Protection Agency had hoped for at least 50 test subjects to get chest X-rays and CT scans that will be sent to researchers at the University of Cincinnati. Volunteers will be paid $100 each.

Health officials extended the sign-up deadline from April 17 after fewer than 10 people had signed up by then.

"Our target number was at least 42, but with 33, it's still enough to go forward," O'Clair said Friday.

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

Federal and state officials had tested rocks and airborne samples in western North Dakota, but said more tests, including tests on humans, were needed.

The erionite found in North Dakota differs slightly from the mineral found in Turkey, where it's a known carcinogen, Murphy 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 agency says U.S. studies also have shown that erionite causes cancer in lab rats, though the mineral is not regulated by the agency.

Murphy and John Hoganson, the state paleontologist, have volunteered for the test.

"We need to see what the health effects are," Murphy said. "The only way to find out is through these types of tests."

Health officials say they targeted people who had long-term exposure to erionite, such as gravel pit workers, truck drivers and maintenance crews, for testing.

They did not get Rick Rice, a 62-year-old rural mail carrier from Killdeer who said he's been driving dusty roads made from erionite gravel for 30 years.

"A perfect test subject? That would be me," Rice said.

He thought about volunteering for the study but never found time to sign up, he said.

"I've had some heart problems, but I think that's from smoking," he said. "The dust did bother me, and caused a burning sensation in my lungs, but I think that's from eating dust from the hundreds of trucks on the road because of the oil activity."