Scientists want to study the health effects of an asbestos-like mineral used widely in western North Dakota and linked to cancer elsewhere, but they're having a hard time finding volunteers for testing.
The state's top rock researcher and the state's chief fossil finder have signed up to find out if they've been harmed by long-term exposure to erionite, which can collect in the lungs of people who breathe it.
But not many others are biting in a part of the state where many of the roads are covered with erionite gravel mined from the nearby Killdeer Mountains.
State health officials and the Environmental Protection Agency are looking for about 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.
Fewer than 10 people have signed up, 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, predicts the government will have a tough time finding enough volunteers.
"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."
State geologist Ed Murphy 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.
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.
"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 John Hoganson, the state paleontologist.
State Rep. Shirley Meyer of Dickinson believes the fears over erionite are overblown.
"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 would sign up for the study and encourage residents to do the same. She said she hoped the tests would halt the fears that have led Killdeer's Dunn County to stop using free erionite gravel until the study is complete.
"I think they (the EPA and the Health Department) are making it a concern, but most people around here think it's silly," Meyer said.
Murphy said he's taking part in the study more for others than for himself.
"This is the best thing we can do to see the effects on those of us that have had exposure, so that we can prevent this from happening to the children," Murphy said.