According to Saturday's Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Minnesota Health Department failed to promptly disclose a year-old research project that found 35 more than the original 17 Iron Range miners had developed mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of lung cancer known to be asbestos-related.
All 52 of the miners have since died of the disease. The research was completed in March 2006, but not released until March 2007.
According to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), health officials say 52 mesothelioma victims is abnormally high for the Iron Range population. As a result, mine workers and others are raising concerns about whether taconite dust, rather than just asbestos fibers, is also dangerous to the 4,000 iron ore miners.
There is no disputing that Iron Range mine workers have developed and died from mesothelioma at a disproportionately high rate. The challenge is to identify the cause. According to MPR, it can be 40 or more years before mesothelioma symptoms present themselves, making it somewhat of a challenge to trace the actual source.
In 2003, reports MPR, Health Department researchers found that 17 miners had developed mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996. The cause was cited as commercial asbestos, not taconite dust. Commercial asbestos is used in mining on pipes and boilers, but taconite dust is chemically identical to asbestos and may also be causing cancer. For this reason, critics of the Health Department's research believe more attention should have been given to taconite as a cancer source. And withholding the research that 32 more miners had contracted mesothelioma only adds to critics' frustration and suspicions.
According to the Tribune, state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach rejected plans last year to disclose the research findings to mining unions, businesses, federal regulators and other interested parties. During an interview on Wednesday, she defended her decision, stating that releasing the findings without a plan could "excite and cause tremendous concern before you have all of your ducks in a row."
Others disagree with the yearlong wait. Dr. Ian Greaves is an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota. The Tribune quotes Dr. Greaves: "Whether or not they had a plan in place is neither here nor there. 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. … This sounds very paternalistic in some ways."