University of Minnesota and Health Department to Study Mesothelioma Among Iron Range Workers

Iron Range Miners Have Abnormal Rates of Mesothelioma

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — July 20, 2007 — The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will collaborate on a study about mesothelioma among workers in the Iron Range of the northeastern part of the state. Since 2003, 58 iron miners in a group of 72,000 developed mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The mesothelioma rate among these iron miners is much higher than among people in other parts of Minnesota.

The University will conduct and design the mesothelioma study, with the MDH providing necessary statistics. The plan is to analyze the composition of the dust in the taconite mines for asbestos fragments. Taconite is the precursor of iron ore used in making steel.

Researchers will also look at death certificates and medical records of miners. They will conduct interviews to determine the exact tasks that the workers performed at the mines as well as their exposure to asbestos.

The study is expected to cost about $3 million and take several years to complete, according to the Minnesota Daily, the newspaper of the University community. Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that about $100,000 would come from the MDH. The University may provide some of the other funds needed, but is expected to sponsor a bill in the 2008 state legislative session to get more financial help for the project. At least one legislator, Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL–Cook), believes that 2008 is too late to wait for funding, and suggests calling an earlier special session to consider the matter.

In March 2006, the MDH discovered that 35 iron workers had mesothelioma, but did not release these statistics until a year later. Because of the delay, several legislators wanted Gov. Pawlenty to fire the head of the MDH, Dianne Mandernach, but he failed to do so. The MDH was later more timely in making public further statistics about mesothelioma cases, but legislators in the Iron Range remain skeptical about the agency.