Minneapolis- Some health experts are criticizing a decision by the Minnesota Department of Health to withhold information about additional deadly cancers among Iron Range miners. But the state health commissioner is defending the delay.
The Star Tribune reported on Sunday that the Health Department suppressed the research for a year, finally releasing it last March.
The department discovered in March 2006 that a rare, asbesetos-related cancer had stricken 35 more miners. Seventeen cases had been previously known. All the miners have died.
According to documents obtained by the Star Tribune, officials had planned last year to disclose the information. But state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach rejected those plans last fall.
Mandernach told the newspaper that the department had needed time to plan new studies of mining and disease. She said that releasing the findings — without having a plan for further studies — could “excite and cause tremendous concern before you have all of your ducks in a row.”
But public-health experts say the department should not have waited.
“Whether or not they had a plan in place is neither here nor there,” said Dr. Ian Greaves, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota who is an expert in lung diseases.
“They’re a public agency that serves the public, and I think it’s overreaching to think they should take an attitude that they know best,” Greaves said.
The deadly cancer — mesothelioma — strikes the lung lining and develops decades after exposure to asbestos fibers. The findings have renewed concern about taconite dust and lung cancer among the 4,000 workers in Minnesota’s iron-ore industry.
Mine dust has long been a concern because some taconite fibers are chemically identical to asbestos. Mine operations also used commercial asbestos on such things as pipes and boilers, creating another source of exposure.
In 2003, Health Department researchers found that 17 miners had developed mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996, and that commercial asbestos — not taconite dust — was a more likely culprit. Some critics said the Health Department didn’t look hard enough at mine dust.
According to department e-mails, memos and notes released under the state public-records law, the Star Tribune reported, officials worried about public reaction to the latest research, which covered 1997 to 2005.
The Health Department has regularly released public-health research. Last month, the department quickly released another study based on the same cancer-tracking registry used in the Iron Range research. That study found no cancer clusters in Washington and Dakota counties, where groundwater pollution is a growing concern.
State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, serves on a committee that reviewed the Iron Range findings in April. He said he didn’t know the release of the mesothelioma research had been delayed a year until a reporter called him. He said the Legislature should have been told earlier.
“I know in the Dakota County one, we pushed for that in a very expedited manner,” McNamara said. “I wouldn’t want them to do anything different in the same situation, no matter what geographic area.”
According to the Star Tribune, internal documents show that the Health Department drafted a news release in June 2006 about the 35 additional cases of mesothelioma, but planned to release it only if word of the findings leaked out.
The newspaper reported the documents reveal that department officials were so concerned about a possible leak that they excluded two prominent University of Minnesota researchers from scientific consultation because they had been critical of the Health Department in the past.
The two scientists are Greaves, the lung-disease expert, and Professor William Toscano, head of the division of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health. In interviews, the scientists said they had never leaked anything.
“People need to know this,” Toscano said of the mine-disease findings. “I can’t imagine people not wanting to know this information.”
The United Steelworkers, which represents many miners, shares that view.
“It is a basic right to know what the government knows about exposures and problems that can affect your health,” said Mike Wright, the union’s director of health, safety and environment.