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Mineral Dusts and Human Health

The Mineral Dusts and Human Health project (MDHHP), which ran from fiscal year 2001 through fiscal year 2004, utilized an interdisciplinary approach (involving mineralogy, economic geology, aqueous and stable isotope geochemistry, analytical chemistry, remote sensing, regional geology, and toxicology expertise) to help understand how the geologic characteristics of mineral dusts (and the source materials from which the dusts are derived) may influence their roles in human health. A key aspect of the project was its integration of earth science and health science expertise and activities. A summary of MDHHP outcomes and publications is included below.

The project's primary focus was upon asbestos and fibrous dusts related to mining, mineral processing, or mineral products, and so the project addressed environmental and human health priorities of the Mineral Resources Program outlined in USGS science planning documents. To a limited extent, the project also successfully applied the same interdisciplinary approach (in collaboration as appropriate with other USGS projects) to study potential health implications of other earth materials such as: metal-bearing mine wastes, mill tailings, and smelter emissions; dusts from dry lake beds; soils; volcanic ash; coal and coal fly ash; and dusts from building collapse. The studies identified many topics for a spectrum of earth materials where substantial further research is needed to address increasing societal concerns.

The majority of the project's funding came from the USGS Mineral Resources Program. The Mendenhall Program supported a post-doctoral toxicology position linked to the project for two years, and the Earth Surface Dynamics Program and Energy Resources program contributed support for the toxicology position.


The Mineral Dusts and Human Health project's focus was primarily on asbestos-containing dusts, although other dusts and dust sources were also investigated to a lesser extent. The project was initiated to provide impartial scientific input to help address renewed societal and regulatory concerns about potential health effects associated with exposure to asbestos. In the past, societal and regulatory concerns were focused on commercial and industrial asbestos. However, in recent years, largely as a result of significant health problems at Libby, Montana, concerns have increased substantially regarding so-called "naturally-occurring asbestos" (NOA) and other fibrous minerals that occur a) as accessory minerals in other industrial mineral deposits (such as vermiculite deposits like those mined at Libby, and such as some talc deposits) and b) in rock units (such as serpentinite-bearing ultramafic rocks).

The project provided insights about a number of asbestos issues that benefit a wide variety of stakeholders (see section summarizing significant outcomes). The project's activities also provided information that can be used to help address some of the many unanswered questions remaining about asbestos. For example, many questions still remain about how asbestos actually causes toxicity, and whether or not fibrous but non-asbestiform varieties of the same minerals can also trigger toxicity. Further, relatively little is known about the full range of geologic environments in which asbestos or other fibrous minerals can occur, the extent to which natural erosion or anthropogenic disturbance of these sources contributes to background levels of asbestos in the air, and the extent to which such background contributions can themselves trigger disease. Although the project's primary focus remained on asbestos and related minerals, limited studies were also carried out on other mineral particulates and/or their potential source material, including: mine wastes; mill tailings; soils affected by smelter emissions; mercury mine calcines; dry lake beds such as Owens Lake, CA; volcanic ash; various soils; coal dust and coal fly ash; and dusts generated by collapse of buildings such as the World Trade Center. These studies demonstrated that a similar interdisciplinary approach to that developed by the project to study asbestos can provide important insights into potential health concerns tied to many other types of earth materials that may be liberated as particulates into the environment. The studies also identified many topics in this realm where substantial further research is needed to address increasing societal concerns. The USGS Mineral Resources Program is currently (Fiscal Years 2005-2009) funding a follow-up project titled "Earth Materials and Human Health" to address unresolved questions about asbestos and the potential health impacts of other earth materials such as mine wastes, soils, volcanic ash, dry lake bed dusts, coal dust and coal fly ash, and others.

Mineral Dusts and Human Health (MDHH) Project Outcomes

I. Asbestos

II. World Trade Center dust characterization

III. Characterization of non-asbestiform dusts and their sources

Minerals Dusts and Human Health Project Products

Published Reports


Project Contacts

Greg Meeker
Phone: 303-236-1081

Geoff Plumlee
Phone: 303-236-1204

Mineral Resources Program
Eastern Central GMEG Alaska Minerals Information Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Spatial Data

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