The University is now handling a comprehensive study into why workers exposed to asbestos in northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore mines have a higher rate of cancer than anywhere else in the state.
The University’s involvement, announced late last month, comes after the state learned the Minnesota Department of Health concealed the mesothelioma-related deaths of 35 miners. The disease is a rare and fatal form of lung cancer.
Legislators recently started questioning why Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach concealed information relating to the miners’ death count.
“With the benefit of hindsight, we should have provided this information earlier,” Mandernach said in a statement. “We wanted to address some of the concerns that have long surrounded the occurrence of this illness … not merely raise more unanswered questions.”
John Stieger, communications representative from the Minnesota Department of Health, confirmed 58 miners have died of mesothelioma since 2003.
John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health, said the Department of Health would still play an important role, working alongside the University, in the study that will take three to five more years to complete.
“We see this as helping out friends,” he said. “It is hard for us to see them go through this rough time.”
The University and Department of Health have had a close relationship for 130 years, Finnegan said. In addition, good communication between the Legislature, the University and the Department of Health is crucial to the success of the study.
With the University taking over the study, it hopes to regain credibility and focus on the scientific aspects of the study, Finnegan said.
Jeffrey Mandel, occupational physician and associate environmental health professor, said a total of 15 to 20 people within the school will work in small committees relating to the study. He said as of now there are no plans to hire additional people to help with the study.
“It will take time to plan out the details of this project,” Mandel said.
While funding is still “up in the air,” Mandel said initial funding will come from the University.
Finnegan said he spoke with University President Bob Bruininks, who promised to provide initial funds for the study.
When the new legislative session begins in January, the University will introduce a bill to help further fund the project, which has a projected cost of more than $3 million, he said. Any funding from the state would fund the central parts of the study, Finnegan said.
The study contains three main components, Mandel said. First, an in-depth look at the dust in the Iron Range, specifically in taconite mines, to determine what issues the long-term exposure to asbestos raise.
Second, researchers will study the death records of the miners who died to determine their exact causes of death.
Third, researchers will interview and medically evaluate current and former miners to determine what types of lung problems they might have.
Mandel said while a few parts of the study could be completed by the end of the year, other parts will be longer and more comprehensive.
Mesothelioma is not the only cancer caused by asbestos, but it is the most common form found in miners. It is difficult to diagnose because it can take between 30 and 50 years for a person to develop symptoms of the cancer after exposure, Stieger said.
In addition to working with the Department of Health, the University will also be working closely with Iron Range representatives, including those in Legislature.
Since the study has become controversial after data was withheld, it is important for the University to communicate as much as possible to the community involved, Mandel said.
Both doctors working on the study have similar goals for the study. They want to “get to the bottom” of why the rate of mesothelioma is twice as high in the Iron Range as it is in the rest of the state.
Finnegan said he wants to help improve the health and well-being on the Iron Range and to determine how many of the lung cancer cases are mesothelioma.
As for the future of the study, Finnegan said there are many complex issues to deal with.
“There is a lot we know, a lot we do not know and a lot we suspect,” Finnegan said.