A team from the University of Iowa has received $125,000 from the National Institutes of Health to study air around frack sand mines in Wisconsin, and around some sites in Iowa where sand is transferred from truck to rail. The silica sand is pumped into the ground along with water to help pull oil and natural gas out of the ground.

U-I environmental health professor, David Osterberg says, the goal of the study is to determine the level of exposure to silica dust from rapidly expanding sand mining operations in the midwest. “The number of mines in Wisconsin went from a few to more than 100. That sort of thing is happening – could be happening in Minnesota and Iowa as well,” Osterberg says.

There’s currently just one major frack sand mine in Iowa’s Clayton County. But parts of northeast Iowa are rich in these sand deposits. Osterberg says many residents want to know what would happen if sand mining expands. “The question is not whether crystalline silica is dangerous – it’s dangerous. The question is — what is the exposure that people are going to have? If there’s no exposure, then there’s not a big hazard,” Osterberg says.

Inhaled silica dust can cause cancer and a lung disease called silicosis. Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties have approved temporary bans on new frack sand mines to allow time for the environmental health effects to be studied.

The U-I monitoring is is scheduled to begin in mid-December.