Is taconite killing miners?

John Finnegan
John Finnegan, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, says investigators will look at the irone ore rock to see if it is contributing to cancer on the Iron Range.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Taconite miners appear to suffer crippling lung diseases more than other people -- including the disease mesothelioma, which is associated with breathing asbestos fibers.

The Minnesota Department of Health confirms 58 former miners dead from mesothelioma. It's a rare disease, but is almost always fatal. And it's still not clear the miner's exposure to asbestos or something very similar, came from work in the taconite mines.

Now, the University of Minnesota is launching a new study that will take about three years to complete. That sounds like a long time, but it's also been a long time coming, according to Bob Bratulich, a district director with the United Steelworkers of America.

"There are people that are dying of mesothelioma. There are people that are going to continue to contract mesothelioma and other lung-related diseases," he said. "But the fact of the matter is we've got to get the study right. It's got to be done correctly, so that at the end of the study people are accepting of the fact that it is the right science and that it was done properly."

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Groups involved in the effort include taconite mining companies, regional hospitals and medical centers, the United Steelworkers, and state departments like the Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Health Department last looked at asbestos fibers and taconite mining, but their study was marked by delays, and then the revelation that data on mesothelioma deaths among miners was withheld for more than a year.

That infuriated Iron Range lawmakers, like Tom Rukavina of Virginia. Rukavina helped push for the new study, and under new management.

"Everything seems to be coming together," according to Rukavina. "Perhaps the controversy in the Department of Health with the withholding of that information is a blessing in the fact that it jump-started this and we've got support and sympathy from all over the state in getting this study going."

This first of a three-part study begins in the coming weeks, with a look at existing mortality records. Mineral samples will be examined at each of Minnesota's taconite mines. Experts will look carefully for fibers in the rock that might resemble asbestos.

The hard part begins next spring, according to John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health. That's when they begin to study the health of living taconite workers and retirees.

"It's more difficult because there's a whole range of issues involving how you track them, privacy issues, medical screening issues... access to records and all those kinds of things. In any study like that, human subjects and human consent becomes a really important part," Finnegan said.

Some former taconite workers blame asbestos-like fibers in taconite rock for ailments from heart and lung disease to cancer. Finnegan says this study will consider any links between mining and poor health, but will focus on lung disease.

While it may be difficult to link lung diseases like cancer or emphysema to mining, Finnegan says he does expect some definitive answers about mesothelioma.

"I really do think in the studies that we're looking at here, that I think we will get to the bottom of the issue of mesothelioma, one way or another," he said. "And the reason for that is that mesothelioma, we know what the causal pathway for mesothelioma is. It's very, very well established."

They hope to determine if miners might have inhaled asbestos fibers in the production plants, or asbestos-like fibers in taconite dust from mining and processing taconite rock.

Gov. Pawlenty is behind the study. In July, he directed the Department of Health to kick-start things with 100,000 dollars for the university. More money is expected from a mining fund for taconite research through the University's Natural Resources Research Institute. The total price tag will be estimated in the coming weeks, and the Legislature will be asked for the balance next February. h