Minnesota’s Health Report on Sick Miners

posted on:
December 7, 2007

author:
Martiga Lohn

The 58 taconite miners who got a rare lung cancer worked in mines across Minnesota’s Iron Range – at least one for as little as a month but others for decades. 

A report on Friday from the state Health Department filled in some background on the workers who got mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer that shows up at about twice the expected rate in northeastern Minnesota.

Scientists say the data will help as they prepare three large studies of the cancer and miners’ health.

Mesothelioma has long worried Iron Rangers, who were furious when state health authorities waited a year to release information about 35 of the cases. The department’s head, Dianne Mandernach, resigned in September after intense criticism. Her successor, Commissioner Sanne Magnan, promised to share data quickly.

The latest report doesn’t contain the level of detail researchers need to explain how the workers got the cancer – particularly information on where each sickened worker labored in the mine and what dust or fibers they might have been exposed to.

“It doesn’t really get at the key issue here that’s on everybody’s minds – which is, is there some relationship between these cases and working in the taconite industry?” said Dr. Jeff Mandel, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who will lead the studies.

The taconite industry mines low-grade iron ore from from several sites in northeastern Minnesota, processes it then the resulting pellets are shipped to steel mills.

Researchers are almost done with a detailed plan for the three proposed studies, and aim to ask lawmakers for money next session. They will need three to five years to complete their work, said Mandel and Dr. Alan Bender, Mandel’s counterpart at the health agency.

Bender said the studies will have withstand scrutiny from all angles, including possibly in the courts.

Sen. Tom Bakk – one of the Iron Range lawmakers who have criticized the Health Department – said he expects Gov. Tim Pawlenty to include money for the studies in his 2008 budget request to the Legislature.

“I don’t care what it costs,” said Bakk, a Democrat from Cook who heads the Senate Taxes Committee. “If it costs $2 million, if it costs $10 million, if it costs the state $30 million – I don’t care.”

Northeastern Minnesota’s elevated mesothelioma rate is partly explained by cases among former employees of Conwed Corp., where ceiling tiles were made using asbestos in Cloquet. The rate in the surrounding county is four times higher than in the rest of the state, according to the report.

But only three of the 58 miners who got the cancer also worked at Conwed, leaving researchers to puzzle over how the other 55 got the disease.

More than half of the men diagnosed worked in the mining industry for five or fewer years. Picklands Mather and U.S. Steel (nyse: X – news – people ) were the companies with the most workers affected.

The report also delved into the work histories of 41 cases identified since 2006. They held at least 122 different mining jobs as far back as 1942.

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