State health commissioner defends decision to keep cancer death numbers secret

Dianne Mandernach
Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dianne Mandernach.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the lung. It's caused by exposure to asbestos. In some cases, a very brief exposure can cause the deadly disease.

In 2003, the Health Department concluded that 17 taconite miners had died from exposure to commercial asbestos, used in furnaces and other iron ore processes.

Three years later, the Health Department learned 35 more mine workers had died.

But according to an article in Sunday's Star Tribune, the department sat on that information for a year.

"The Department of Health can't be trusted to handle this issue."

Then last March, officials announced they would conduct two studies to find out whether something in the taconite itself might be causing the cancers.

Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach says during that year, her staff was working to design the two studies.

"And what we were trying to do was to make sure we had a scientific basis and protocol put together," she says. "So that when in fact the study results come out, that there is peer review process so they are accepted within the community, and actually by the regulatory agencies, so that decisions can be made."

Susan Vento can't understand how it would take so long to design the studies.

"If that's the amount of time it takes, the Department of Health can't be trusted to handle this issue. That makes no sense at all."

Vento is a board member for the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. Her husband, Congressman Bruce Vento, died of mesothelioma in 2000.

Vento says the Health Department is locking out medical researchers and union officials, and even the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration -- all of whom could help design the research.

"I think by doing it in secret, they really shut off a lot of opportunity for a plan that's comprehensive and really proactive," Vento says.

The Health Department had to shorten its first mesothelioma study when the Legislature cut funding. And even now, it isn't clear where the department will find the money to pay for the more in-depth studies.

Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach says she's always been committed to getting helpful answers for mine workers and their families.

"As we sit today, whether it would have been better to put the number out there and develop the protocol afterwards, that, at this point in time, looks like it may have been a better decision," she says. "But certainly we want people who are concerned to stay in touch with their doctor and continue to monitor their health."

The information on the mesothelioma deaths came from a cancer registry run by the Department of Health. It's unclear when that information will be updated to provide new statistics on mesothelioma deaths.