For decades, miners on the Iron Range appear to have suffered higher than average rates of respiratory disease and other ailments. University of Minnesota officials, on Wednesday, outlined a broad and comprehensive research partnership to help health officials and the public understand why.
The University officials were joined by more than two dozen representatives of workers' unions, mining companies, and other public health agencies for the presentation at the Iron Range Resources Agency in Eveleth. The assembled group will be providing ongoing input and assistance as the research goes forward. John Finnegan, Dean of the university's School of Public Health, said the study would be a multi-disciplinary effort, one that he's dubbed the Minnesota Taconite Workers Lung Health Partnership.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Grand Rapids, spoke for many in the room at the outset. ""We will make this a successful study with conclusions we can all be satisfied with," he said.
At least three separate studies will be a part of the overall research into miners' health problems and the entire effort will take up to three years to complete, said Jeff Mandel, a researcher with the University's SPH. But Finnegan said some portions of the study, including an examination of dust from area mining operations, could be completed much sooner than that, possibly in just six months. And Finnegan said researchers won't wait to release findings as they are made. "We'll hear of progress as the research goes along. "We'll be setting up a communications team to make sure of that," he said.
The SPH will also be maintaining a website for the study, and Finnegan said the site will be updated regularly and will provide the public an opportunity to provide input on their work. That site can be reached at www.sph.umn.edu/lung health.
The study will include three main components, according to Mandel.
• A cohort mortality study will examine death records from more than 70,000 former miners to determine if miners were more likely to die of certain diseases than the general public.
• A case control study will examine individual cases where miners suffered certain diseases, like the rare and fatal cancer mesothelioma, to determine if any causal links or similarities in exposures can be found.
• Screening of current and former mine workers to help detect signs of disease. Those screenings will include x-rays, health histories and physical examinations.
David Trach, a representative of retired steelworkers, said it's important that the study look beyond the issue of mesothelioma, which has been the primary focus of researchers to date. "There are other related diseases that miners are suffering from," he said. He noted that health screenings done for his organization had found that more than half of retirees screened suffered from some form of respiratory disease.
Bob Bratulich, who represents active steelworkers, noted that past studies only looked at exposure to commercial asbestos as a cause of such illnesses. He said this time researchers will need to look at all potential causes.
Mandel assured both men that the study would be comprehensive. "We will be looking at all potential methods of exposure," he said. "We'll be focusing on respiratory diseases, but we will look at other conditions as well."
Geologists from the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth will also be brought into the research effort, said Finnegan, to look at the geography of minerals on the Range and to study in detail the dust generated in mining operations and processing.
"The fundamental question is, are mineral dust particles responsible for negative health effects," said Larry Zanko, a geologist with NRRI. Geologists will take dust samples from a number of locations across the region and try to determine if there's a geographic relationship to miner's health problems. He said the changes in mineralogy across the Iron Range may increase the risk factors on the eastern end, where minerals include more of the asbestos-like fibers that researchers suspect could be contributing to diseases among miners there.
Finnegan noted that understanding the health risks associated with mining on the eastern Iron Range is more important than ever because the region is slated to see a major increase in mining in the next few years.
Finnegan said the study will also look at ways to minimize dust exposure for workers, respirator use, smoking, and worker clothing, all to determine if such factors could play a part in health issues. Finnegan said the consideration of smoking isn't an effort to point to non-work factors in assessing diseases like mesothelioma. "The data shows no link between smoking and mesothelioma," he said.
While such research would typically be handled by the state Dept. of Health, that agency came under fire recently after the Star Tribune revealed that the agency had known about nearly 40 additional deaths of former miners due to mesothelioma, but had kept that information from the public for a year. The revelations led some Iron Range legislators to demand the resignation of Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach, and it prompted Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Pike, to ask University of Minnesota officials to take over the research effort. Rukavina noted on Wednesday that the university generates millions in revenue from taconite royalties, which makes research on taconite miners an obvious mission for the institution.
Rukavina said state funds would likely also be tapped and Peter Mackowksi, an aide to Congressman Jim Oberstar, said federal dollars would also likely be available for the effort.