Gene Olds worked as a millwright at the LTV Steel taconite plant in Hoyt Lakes, Minn., for 38 years. He made a good living, but working in a cloud of dust took its toll.
Not long after Olds retired in 1996, he went to see doctors who diagnosed asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. The condition makes it difficult to breathe, so much so that the 77-year-old from Aurora now needs to receive oxygen 24 hours a day.
"It's something I don't wish on anyone," said Olds, for whom a long oxygen tube, looped over his ears to his nose, is a lifeline. "I just don't. It's hard on my family. It's hard on me. I can't do the things I always wanted to do."
Today, University of Minnesota researchers will travel to the Iron Range to share findings of their study into possible links between asbestos exposure in taconite mines and the deadly disease mesothelioma, a rare cancer that has killed 80 former miners in Minnesota.
For the past five years, researchers have tried to determine whether exposure to dust in the mines and processing plants makes workers more vulnerable -- not only to mesothelioma but to other respiratory diseases.
"When we talk about people dying from this stuff, it's faces that come to our minds... It's people we worked with."
Olds and a former LTV co-worker, Dave Trach, are both convinced that breathing in that dust made Olds and hundreds of other miners sick, with asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The two men hope that when the results from the U of M study are released, they'll finally learn what exactly has caused at least some of those diseases to be so much more prevalent on the Iron Range.
They'll never forget the extremely dusty working conditions in the mines.
"When I was a crane operator, in the summertime, when they pulled those doors back, and the sunlight came in, it was just full of dust!" recalled the 78-year-old Trach of Eveleth.
"It was pathetic, just pathetic," agreed Olds. "You could look and see that fine dust mist in the air. It was just terrible."
Mining provided good jobs and wages. Like many, Olds took the work because he couldn't let his family down.
But at the time, Olds and Trach said, they had no idea of the risks their jobs entailed.
"They didn't tell us," Trach said. "And this is what makes me so mad. Geno used to be pretty athletic, and full of life, and look what it's done to him."
The deaths of those 80 former mineworkers from mesothelioma represent twice the expected rate in Minnesota.
The incidence of lung cancer among mine workers also is much higher. But for Trach, the statistics aren't what's important.
"When we talk about people dying from this stuff, it's faces that come to our minds," he said. "It's people we worked with. We've lost a lot of guys that have passed away from this asbestos, or asbestos-like fiber."
MORE ON IRON RANGE MINING
• Study: Minnesota Taconite Workers Lung Health
• Timeline of mesothelioma research
• Taconite producers need more time to meet air standards, Nolan says
• Does long-term prosperity follow more Iron Range mining?
• Graphic: Mining operations on the Iron Range
LONG SEARCH FOR A CAUSE
Researchers have yet to determine precisely what caused so many miners to become ill. But various studies point to working conditions in the mines. In 1973, fibers similar to asbestos were found in the Duluth water supply and traced to waste rock dumped into Lake Superior by the Reserve Mining Company in Silver Bay.
In the 1980s, a radiologist on the Iron Range reported unusual numbers of lung abnormalities in his patients' X-rays.
In 1999, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed a much higher rate of mesothelioma among men in northeastern Minnesota than men in the rest of the state.
A 2003 Health Department study concluded the most likely cause was the commercial asbestos used in various parts of the taconite production process. Many mineworkers, including Gene Olds, handled commercial asbestos regularly in their work. That doesn't happen anymore in modern taconite facilities.
But some mine workers pointed to the asbestos-like particles in the Silver Bay waste rock and wanted to know whether those fibers occur in iron ore all across the range, and might be causing the mesothelioma and the other diseases.
The current study may not answer that question definitively.
Dr. Jeffrey Mandel, associate professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said his team has no measurements of dust from commercial asbestos, because it is no longer widely used. They concentrated instead on dust produced by crushing and handling the taconite ore.
"That's the one that we can do a better job of estimating the exposures to, and realizing commercial asbestos may be playing a role here," Mandel said. "But it's really hard to control for that in any of our work."
AN AIR OF DISTRUST
Trust is a major issue for Iron Range workers and their families. Some mining companies occasionally took X-rays of workers, but some of those workers wonder whether the companies were completely forthcoming in sharing the results.
In 2007, the state Health Department withheld information on newly identified mesothelioma deaths for a year while it designed follow-up studies. Iron Range residents, including then-Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, were furious.
"For some reason they hid it, and we were all outraged," Rukavina said. "I never figured out why the Pawlenty administration hid that information. In 2007, we demanded some answers."
The state Legislature allocated in 2008 $4.9 million and directed the University of Minnesota to take over the research. The result was a huge project that included health screening for retired and current mine workers, dust measurements inside and outside the plant and comparisons of death rates for various diseases among miners versus the general population. It also assessed the risks for various respiratory diseases for taconite workers.
This time, researchers were careful to keep interested people up to date. They held regular meetings on the Iron Range to share progress and results.
So far, the research has found that miners on the Iron Range not only have much higher rates of the extremely rare mesothelioma, but they also have higher rates of lung cancer and heart disease than the general population in Minnesota. Surprisingly, rates of other respiratory disease are comparable to the general population.
"SAVE THE YOUNGER GENERATIONS"
The study comes too late for retirees on the Iron Range like Bill Stodola. The 74-year-old worked at LTV Steel until the company went bankrupt in 2001. His wife, Mary, said he was diagnosed with asbestosis a decade ago, and worries about getting mesothelioma.
"It's too late for people that are sick," Mary Stodola said. "No money amount is going to help. But, if there's a problem, protect it to save the younger generations. That's really what our goal is."
Some things have changed on the Range. Gene Olds said his son-in-law, who also worked at LTV but now works at MinnTac, the largest taconite facility on the range, tells him there is an increased emphasis on safety in the mines.
"Totally different," Olds said. "They demand that you wear a facemask all the time, all the time."
In an interim report on its research, the U of M researchers say they have found that dust levels in the processing plants today are mostly within federal guidelines, which limit worker exposure to asbestos to 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day.
But as so often happens in scientific research, the study raises a new question: Are those federal guidelines addressing the right problem?
Mandel, the U of M research director, said most of the fibers in the processing plants -- called "elongated mineral particles" or EMPs -- are smaller than what the federal government measures.
"The recognized government approach to counting these EMPs is to count the ones that are over 5 microns," he said. "In this industry, that's not the predominant exposure; it's to EMPs that are smaller than that ... quite a bit smaller than would be counted."
Mandel and his researchers are planning further studies to learn whether these extremely small fibers are related to mesothelioma.