New Minnesota Cancer Study Links Rare Form Of Cancer To Iron Range Mining

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    Carissa Wyant

    Mesothelioma. It’s a rare form of cancer and experts say also one of the most deadly.

    And just last week, the results of a five-year $5 million study completed by researchers at the University of Minnesota indicated a link between the deadly cancer and working in the taconite mining industry.

    Historical perspective

    At a press conference held Friday in Minnesota, mining workers were urged by University of Minnesota scientists to “protect themselves,” after it was revealed that time spent working in the taconite industry put people at a higher risk of mesothelioma.

    Research has confirmed a 300 percent higher rate of mesothelioma for people on the Minnesota Iron Range compared with the general population in Minnesota.

    Researchers were unable to definitively conclude the origin of the rare cancer, but said there does seem to be a link between the cancer and the mining of taconite.

    “No matter how you look at it, this is dusty work, and it demands that workers and employers take responsibility to safeguard themselves,” Dr. Jeff Mandel, who led the study told MPR News. “Regardless of whatever else is going on with our research, you can’t wait around until our results come back.”                

    The Iron Range is an area located in the northeastern section of Minnesota in the United States. It is a region with multiple distinct bands of iron ore. Prior to the 19th century, the area that would become the Iron Range was inhabited mainly by Native Americans.

    It became the site of intensive logging operations during the 19th century, with mining also beginning during that time in the region, following a report that there were deposits of gold on the shores of Lake Vermilion. While miners never  actually struck gold there, the reports led to an increase in the region’s population. Hematite and taconite have been the main sources of iron ore sought in the region.

    “Our goal was to begin answering questions around how mining and taconite processing have impacted the health of Minnesotans. These studies have started to uncover those answers,” John Finnegan, dean of the university’s School of Public Health, explained.

    Results of the study

    Mandel and the other researchers shared results of the Minnesota Taconite Worker Study at a meeting with Iron Range workers and their families.

    The Minnesota Legislature commissioned the $4.9 million project in 2008, after data from the Minnesota Cancer Registry revealed an excess of cases of mesothelioma in Iron Range workers. The mesothelioma deaths only occurred in men working in the taconite industry.

    The University of Minnesota School of Public Health partnered with the Medical School and the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth on the project.  

    There have been 80 deaths confirmed attributed to mesothelioma among Iron Range workers, and researchers also found higher rates of all types of cancer and heart disease among the workers. The study said that for every year worked in the industry, the risk for mesothelioma went up by about 3 percent.

    Taconite, a low grade of iron ore, can contain asbestos. Exposure to this has been linked to an increased risk of mesothelioma.

    About a hundred residents of the Iron Range gathered to hear the results of the study, and some in the audience questioned researchers about how it was conducted.

    Study leaves lingering health questions

    Bob Tammen, a retired mine worker, was present during the study’s release and press conference on Friday in Mountain Iron, Minn.

    He asked researchers if it included enough sampling stations to measure the air quality in Iron Range communities. “When you get a tailings pond where the beaches dry out and you get a hot dry wind, we’ve had communities that get tons of dust,” Tammen said. “They don’t have a sampling station there; they don’t pick that up. So we do have situations where we don’t have a complete understanding of what the mining companies are doing to our communities.”

    Researchers have said the air quality does not seem to suffer adversely from the taconite mining.

    Area lawmaker State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) had additional questions. “What families need to know is what are the occupational hazards with the job that you have?”  Bakk asked. “What is it that the person who works at the mine brings with them on their clothing at night to the family?”

    Craig Pagel, executive director of the Minnesota Iron Ore Association, was also present at the Friday meeting, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune that industry officials would have to study the results in more detail before commenting on the study’s significance.

    “We are happy the data is out, and will be reviewing it,” he said. “And we are looking forward to seeing the final outcome of the studies.”

    Cliffs Natural Resources, one of the taconite operators on the Range, also said it wants to review the findings before commenting.

    While scientists say they have more work to do in order to clearly understand the link between taconite and cancer, the issue is not a new one. In fact, for years there has been speculation in the area about the connection between mining taconite and lung disease. Controversy first cropped up on the Iron Range 40 years ago after needle-like fibers were discovered in Lake Superior and later traced to the dumping of taconite waste rock.

    Then in 2007, when the Star Tribune revealed that the State Health Department, under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, suppressed research findings for a year about 35 additional miner deaths from mesothelioma, public outrage led to the resignation of the state health commissioner and the legislation that funded the recent study.

    Workers certainly do have a right to know how and if their occupation may damage their health.

    Researchers plan to continue their quest for answers and have applied for more than $2 million in federal and foundation grants.

    The final results of the study will be published later this year.

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