One diagnosis of mesothelioma is a personal tragedy. Several dozen diagnoses, all among men of similar age who worked in the same Minnesota industry, is a serious public health issue.
"Public" is the operative word in that last sentence. Going public, informing the citizenry and enlisting their participation in crafting a response is how democracies solve shared problems. Providing the public with information about such matters is among government's responsibilities.
In March 2006, when state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach learned of 35 diagnoses of mesothelioma among Iron Range miners from 1997 to 2005, she did not live up to that responsibility. Sitting on that information for a full year was a mistake, as she herself acknowledged Monday.
"In retrospect, it looks as though it would have been better to put the number out," Mandernach said in an interview, one day after this newspaper disclosed that the department sat on the new mesothelioma toll until announcing it in the fifth paragraph of a news release on March 28 of this year.
Her stated reason for the long delay and muted announcement is troubling. She said she wanted to keep quiet until the scope of a follow-up scientific study was defined, and funding obtained, to better pinpoint the cause of the miners' cancer. "What we were really trying to do is make sure we have accurate information to put out in the community," she said.
In other words, Mandernach wanted to be able to hand Minnesotans both the problem and its scientifically determined cause all at once, tidily tied together. She evidently didn't trust people to respond appropriately to news of the problem alone.
Neither, apparently, did she consider that an informed public can often contribute to a solution. For example, the Health Department has yet to secure $300,000 needed to start the follow-up study Mandernach says is needed. Had Minnesotans known about the spike in mesothelioma on the Iron Range, they could have appealed to the 2007 Legislature for those funds.
Meanwhile, as-yet-unaffected taconite workers, their families and their health care providers would have been put on notice. Sadly, most mesothelioma cases are not diagnosed until the disease is too advanced for effective treatment. Heightened awareness of the risk might change that.
Mandernach may have thought she was doing her boss a favor. If so, she was second-guessed Tuesday by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokeman Brian McClung. "Our office was not involved in that decision," McClung said. "We believe the Health Department should have released the information sooner."
We agree. And we think Mandernach has more explaining and some apologizing to do. State Senate Health Committee Chair John Marty said he's interested in giving her that chance, at legislative hearings. He should. Mandernach's disclosure delay calls her judgment into question, and undercuts public confidence in what has been considered one of the best state health agencies in the nation. That's a lot to lose.