Is taconite dust making Iron Range miners sick?

That’s the question that remains at the heart of the debate over the apparent cluster of mesothelioma cases among former mine workers in the region. More than 58 former miners have already been diagnosed with the rare form of cancer, according to the latest information from the Minnesota Department of Health.

While the media has focused in recent weeks on the effort by the department of health to keep news of the rising cancer toll from the public for more than a year, local elected officials, union representatives and health officials agree that the real question is how bad will the cancer toll ultimately be for area miners?

“That should be the biggest issue,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Pike. The numbers are particularly alarming, said Rukavina, because so many new cases have been discovered in just the past three years. A state study from 1998-2003 identified 17 cases of the disease out of about 72,000 miners who worked in the region between the 1930s and 1982. But new information from a cancer registry has identified an additional 41 cases in just the past three years. In every case, the miner died.

Rukavina said Iron Rangers have talked for years about a possible flood of new cancer cases. “Maybe the tidal wave is coming,” he said.

Those fears first arose back in the 1960s and 70s when state litigation against Reserve Mining widely revealed the presence of asbestos-like fibers in the taconite the company mined near Babbitt. Since then, some miners have been outspoken on the need for more testing of the health effects of exposure to ore dust, particularly on the eastern end of the Iron Range, where the presence of asbestos-like fibers was more pronounced. Mesothelioma, which has a latency period of 30-50 years, is one of a handful of cancers definitively linked to exposure to asbestos.

“That’s what we kept saying,” said Rukavina, a former mine worker himself. “We’ve been concerned the problem is in the dust.”

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Grand Rapids, argues that dust could still be posing risks to mine workers. He said the recent spike in cancer cases could be like the tip of an iceberg that may soon become apparent, and could affect more than mine workers. “In addition to the hundreds and thousands of members of the steelworkers union who worked in these plants, many members of the building trades worked there as well,” he said. “You’re talking carpenters, electricians, sheet metal workers, pipe-fitters and others who spent a lot of time in these plants and may face some of the same concerns.” Anzelc said the issue could hit the Iron Range hard in years to come. “I still remember the Miles Lord case and the issue of the asbestos fibers. I have an eerie feeling this is all connected,” he said.

State health officials aren’t ruling that out. In fact, according to Dr. Alan Bender, who directs the health department’s Chronic Disease and Environmental Epidemiology Section, his office was set to begin a study of the dust issue back in 2002 when funding for the work was suddenly eliminated as part of state budget cuts. “We still do not know the answer to that question,” he said.

Bender is proposing to reinitiate a new round of studies that may yet find the answers area miners are seeking, but the department still doesn’t know where it will find the funding for the work, which Bender said would likely cost a few million dollars to complete. The department did apply for a federal grant for a study two years ago, but that application was rejected last August. Bender said the department has identified a few other potential federal funding sources and that officials there hope to have a new funding request submitted by Oct. 4.

Bender said a comprehensive look at the health issues related to taconite mining would encompass three separate studies. Besides an examination of the mesothelioma cases, Bender said a nationwide examination of the death certificates of former miners could give a clearer picture of whether miners face unusual health risks. “You could compare and contrast all their causes of death with the general population, and not just for mesothelioma, but all kinds of causes,” he said.

Bender said a third study, which would include detailed health screening of selected mine workers could also provide useful information on a wide range of possible health impacts.

Bender said it’s important to look beyond the issue of mesothelioma. “If in fact there is something in that dust that is causing an increase in mesothelioma, it also may be contributing to other similar diseases, such as asbestosis or lung cancer.”

Anzelc wondered why the department never sought funds for such research in the most recent legislative session. He said health officials indicated during the legislative session that they had sufficient resources to their job.

Bender said he and other epidemiologists within the health department have preferred to seek a federal source of funding, fearing that state funding was inconsistent. “There’s been a lot of frustration trying to get the funding to bring this issue to closure,” he said. “There’s been a long history of fits and starts. We certainly don’t want to disappoint people again.”

Committee hearing raises new concerns

During a legislative committee hearing in St. Paul on Tuesday, Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach and others from the department testified on the decision to withhold cancer from the public. Health officials learned of 35 additional mesothelioma cases in early 2006, but didn’t reveal that information to the public until March, 2007. Since then, an additional six cases have been discovered, raising the total number among mine workers to 58.

Mandernach apologized for the delay in the release of information, but had few answers when asked why she didn’t seek state funds for more research during the legislative session, other than to say the issue did not make the department’s cut.

The session also revealed the disagreement within the department over whether to release the information when officials first learned of it.

Dr. Bender testified that he had urged department officials to release the information right away, but said he was overruled by higher-ups within the department. Copies of inter-department emails demonstrated that top officials there were adamant that news of the additional cancer deaths not leak out.

Commissioner Mandernach said she had wanted to wait to release the information until the department had funding in place for new research. She acknowledged, however, that her decision had been wrong.

Has information been withheld for years?

Anzelc said he’s concerned some health officials may have kept health information from mine workers for years. “I’m very interested in connecting the dots, and establishing the record of communication between state officials and the various mining companies going back to the 1950s. I think we need to establish what kind of communicaton there has been, to see where we’ve been, and to determine where to go in the future.”

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