Health commissioner at center of controversy over cancer data

Iron Range lawmakers
DFL Sen. Dave Tomassoni, left, and Rep. Tom Rukavina, center, called for the resignation of state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach because she delayed disclosure of cancer-related deaths among iron miners. Joining them is Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, right.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Criticism against the state Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach has been mounting this week over a newspaper report that said she waited a year to disclose information about deaths of 35 iron ore miners.

They died from a rare, asbestos-related cancer known as mesothelioma. The data came out in March, but the delay wasn't reported until this week. Another 17 cases had been disclosed previously.

Dianne Mandernach
Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dianne Mandernach is under fire from some DFL lawmakers for withholding information about asbestos-related cancer deaths among Iron Range miners.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the commissioner's action is unacceptable. He delivered a letter to Gov. Pawlenty's office demanding Mandernach's resignation.

"We need to have a Health Department that we can trust," said Tomassoni. "If they're hiding this kind of information, who knows what else is being withheld. This needs to be taken care of immediately."

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Tomassoni and eight other DFL legislators signed the letter.

State officials have been working for several years to better understand the link between mine workers and mesothelioma. There's a high rate of the cancer among men living in the Iron Range region. But questions remain about whether the cause is taconite dust or asbestos exposure.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said Mandernach breached the public trust. He said the department's delay in releasing the research findings has delayed the search for answers.

"These are my friends -- my constituents and my friends and my neighbors -- people I've know all my life that are being affected by this. And it's outrageous."

"They sat on this for a year? These are my friends -- my constituents and my friends and my neighbors -- people I've know all my life that are being affected by this. And it's outrageous," Rukavina said.

The letter from Iron Range lawmakers follows a request from the United Steelworkers for an investigation into the Health Department delay. Union leaders want the attorney general to determine if there was a coverup.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, says the Senate and House health committees will take up the issue during a hearing in the coming weeks.

"I want to know why the department is making these decisions -- that we're not going to tell the public," said Marty. "This is the type of cancer that by the time you've got symptoms, you've got a death sentence already. If were a miner, I'd want to know right away what they know."

Commissioner Mandernach issued a written statement apologizing for the delayed release of cancer data.

"I hope that the people of Minnesota will accept my apology," she said. "I will do everything I can to maintain the department's credibility, and above all, to preserve the excellent reputation that this agency has earned."

Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung acknowledged that Mandernach did not handle the situation well, and should have released the information sooner. But McClung said the issue doesn't rise to the level of termination.

Taconite fiber
This electron microscope photo shows a taconite fiber breaking up into smaller fibers in rat lung tissue. The state Health Department is conducting studies to see if taconite fibers can cause mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer which is usually associated with asbestos exposure.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Philip Cook, U.S. EPA

"She made a mistake. She made an error in judgment. But she has years and years of public service," said McClung. "The Health Department is well respected. It is one of the premier public health departments in the country. So, we think she can continue to lead it."

Pawlenty appointed Mandernach to her $108,400-a-year position in 2003. Before that, she headed a health center in Moose Lake.

McClung says the governor's office is working with the Health Department to make sure information is released more quickly in the future.

The message must have gotten through. A few hours after McClung spoke, Health Department officials sent out a news release reporting six more cases of asbestos-related cancer identified in group of former mine workers.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)