Dust from Mining Operations Not Asbestos = Lung Cancer? UMD Study

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University of Minnesota School of Public Health - Minnesota Taconite Workers health Study

Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study

Why are the miners getting sick?

Taconite plant and ore docks on Lake Superior

Iron ore mining helped build Minnesota. In its heyday, it supplied much of the ore used to make the world’s steel. By the 1950s, the high-grade ore was mined out and the industry turned to a lower-grade ore called taconite.

Taconite mining employs about 3,000 men and women and it figures significantly in the economy and culture of the northeastern part of the state, hence the area’s nickname “Iron Range.“

Mining of any sort is never a healthy occupation, and in 2007, it was made public that a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer called mesothelioma was striking Minnesota taconite miners at twice the expected rate.

The disease has always been linked to asbestos, but when it comes to environmental exposures, what the miners seem to have in common is not asbestos, but dust from mining operations.

To find the source of the mesothelioma and to protect the health of current and future mine workers, Minnesota’s legislature and governor chose the School of Public Health to lead a $4.9 million research project. The Medical School and the University of Minnesota Duluth-based Natural Resources Research Institute are also part of the project.

SPH associate professor Jeffrey Mandel will serve as principal investigator
and he has put together a team that will study all aspects of this mystery, including health and environment exposure histories, air particulate counts, and taconite fibers that share some qualities with asbestos.

Study to Focus on 3 Questions

The Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study web site contains up-to-the-minute information on the study.

The study is called the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study and it is focusing on three main questions:

  • What is the relationship of working in the taconite industry to the excess number of cases of mesothelioma?
  • Are other diseases, respiratory and non-respiratory, associated with work in the taconite industry?
  • Are spouses at risk for respiratory diseases as a result of their partners working in the taconite industry?

“This project represents an historic opportunity to get to the bottom of some long unanswered questions about the health of Minnesota’s taconite workers, “ says Mandel.  “The funding provided by the state will enable us to take a very broad and deep look at the issues surrounding miner health.”

Over the years, the University has learned that the best, most respectful way to work with communities is as a partner. SPH’s approach to this study has kept that firmly in mind as it meets with northeast Minnesota residents and community leaders to gain their trust and encourage their participation in this project.

“The success of this study depends on the active engagement of the Iron Range communities,” Mandel says. “We are pleased that so many different organizations with an interest in this issue are joining with us to get this important work done.”