Road to Riches Paved with Problems?

Friday, April 6, 2012

UI researcher: Roads to North Dakota oil may pose health hazard

By Gary Galluzzo
University of Iowa

New rock-fracturing technology has brought oil boom times to North Dakota. However, the roads leading to the state’s oil riches may be paved with a potential health hazard.


That’s the message from University of Iowa researcher A. Umran Dogan to residents of western North Dakota, where oil production from the Bakken Formation soared from about 1,500 barrels per day in 2004 to some 440,000 barrels per day in 2011. The boom times, however, may have come at a high cost for workers because some of the rural roads leading to the wells may contain a cancer-causing mineral called erionite.

“Each oil well has to be connected to the main road with a dirt or gravel road,” says Dogan. “Material used for road construction should be tested to make sure that it doesn’t contain any health hazard materials.”

Dogan has already found that residents of parts of North Dakota and Turkey share in common a health risk related to erionite, a dusty mineral found on some gravel roads. He and his colleagues have determined that the mineral is causing unprecedented rates of mesothelioma, a lung disease, in some villages in Turkey and that deposits of the mineral are also found in the United States in at least 12 western states, including North Dakota.

Dogan, an adjunct professor in the UI College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and researcher in the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, and his colleagues published the findings in the Aug. 16 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper “Erionite exposure in North Dakota and Turkish villages with mesothelioma” can be found at

In the United States, the researchers focused on Dunn County, N.D., where they learned that over the past three decades, more than 300 miles of roads were surfaced with gravel containing erionite. To determine potential health implications, they compared erionite from the Turkish villages to that from North Dakota.

Dogan says that the physical and chemical properties of erionite from Turkey and that from North Dakota are similar—both are erionite-K, having identical biological activities.

Airborne erionite concentrations measured in North Dakota along roadsides, indoors, and inside vehicles, including school buses, equaled or exceeded concentrations in village of Boyali, Turkey, where 6.3 percent of all deaths are caused by mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer in which malignant cells develop in the mesothelium, a protective lining that covers many of the body’s internal organs.

Dogan says that health concerns for some North Dakota residents will remain valid far into the future, considering the known 30- to 60-year latency period for mesothelioma development.

Dogan notes that erionite is listed as a Group-1 human carcinogen and accepted as one of the most carcinogenic minerals, based upon in vivo and in vitro experiments on erionite found in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly disease, and in this region of Turkey, three villages affected most with mesothelioma cases include Karain, Sarihidir, and Tuzkoy, with very high incidence rates. There are other villages in Cappadocia also having erionite, but they have experienced either a low incidence or no mesothelioma cases, he says.

Dogan has extensive previous experience in the field of erionite research:

  • In his 2003 paper “Zeolite Mineralogy and Cappadocia Erionite,” published in the journal Indoor Built Environment, Dogan predicted the possibility of increased exposure to zeolites in the western United States and that potential carcinogenic dangers must be evaluated.
  • In 2006, a major paper titled “Genetic predisposition to fiber carcinogenesis causes a mesothelioma epidemic in Turkey” appeared in Cancer Research, followed by a paper titled “A mesothelioma epidemic in Cappadocia: Scientific developments and unexpected social outcomes” in Nature Reviews Cancer in 2007. Written by Dogan and his team members, the papers laid the foundation for erionite-mesothelioma relationships in the region, which would be a model for other parts of the world.
  • In 2008, Dogan was part of a team of experts in the fields of genetics, thoracic oncology, geology, and pathology working in the United States and Turkey who were honored for their research. The team received the Landon Foundation-AACR INNOVATOR Award for International Collaboration by the American Association for Cancer Research. The award aims to promote international cancer research collaboration.
  • As part of a three-week field excursion during the summer of 2008, Dogan investigated erionite exposures in the western United States including Arizona, California, Nevada, and Oregon. The initial result was a paper published in American Mineralogist titled “Crystal structure and iron topochemistry of erionite-K from Rome, Oregon, USA.”

Dogan notes that in December 2010, Nature published a news article, “Fear in Dust,” highlighting the fact that mesothelioma epidemics in Turkey could hold the secrets to heading off a public health disaster in North Dakota. The experience obtained from Turkish villages should help prevent exposure to the inhabitants and warn people not to repeat such unfortunate incidents again because the cancer-causing mineral erionite found in North Dakota and other U.S. road gravels may increase the risk of mesothelioma.

Dogan and his research team are working on a major grant proposal to investigate the health hazards posed by mineral contamination in the western United States.

Research for the 2011 PNAS paper was supported in part by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (grant number PO1 114047 to Dr. Michele Carbone, director of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center); the American Association for Cancer Research Landon Innovator Award; and a grant from the Butita Mesothelioma Foundation to Dr. Carbone. Also, grants from Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, Riviera Foundation, Aramec Foundation to Haining Yang of the University of Hawaii, and the Hawaii Community Foundation to Yang and Giovanni Gaudino of University of Hawaii. Dogan of the University of Iowa was a co-principal investigator for the NIH grant.