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Cancer, work in taconite industry linked

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Researchers at the University of Minnesota told Iron Range workers on Friday to protect themselves from taconite dust, despite a new study that was unable to prove that exposure to the dust causes the rare cancer mesothelioma.

The study, which began in 2008, linked time spent working in the taconite industry to a higher risk of mesothelioma but stopped short of pinpointing its cause. The researchers said they have more work to do.

"No matter how you look at it, this is dusty work, and it demands that workers and employers take responsibility to safeguard themselves," said Dr. Jeff Mandel, who led the study. "Regardless of whatever else is going on with our research, you can't wait around until our results come back."

Mandel and the other researchers shared results of the Minnesota Taconite Worker Study at a meeting with Iron Range workers and their families.

"Our goal was to begin to answer questions around how mining and taconite processing have impacted the health of Minnesotans," said John Finnegan, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "These studies have started to uncover those answers."

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer affecting the lining of the lungs. It is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos particles in the air.

The $4.9 million study was commissioned by the Legislature in 2008 after data from the Minnesota Department of Health showed an excess of mesothelioma in men in northeastern Minnesota. To date, University of Minnesota researchers have confirmed 80 mesothelioma deaths in Iron Range workers and also found higher rates of all types of cancer and heart disease.

Several current and former lawmakers representing the Iron Range were on hand for the meeting.

"What families need to know is what are the occupational hazards with the job that you have?" asked state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "What is it that the person who works at the mine brings with them on their clothing at night to the family?"

Researchers said that they found no greater risk for spouses of taconite workers and said that the air in communities surrounding taconite mines has fewer particulates than air found in other parts of the state, including Minneapolis. In addition, researchers said current taconite workers are generally not exposed to unsafe levels of dust.

But the researchers did not find what caused the mesothelioma. Evaluating the dust that taconite workers were exposed to in the past proved challenging, Mandel said.

"The challenge is estimating what happened 50 to 60 years ago in the workplace," Mandel said. He said it is also difficult to measure exposure to asbestos outside the workplace. "It is something that we want to continue to look at, if at all possible."

The researchers said lifestyle is another important factor in evaluating why taconite workers have higher disease rates.

Mandel said the researchers are not finished with their investigation.

"We're going to be looking at other types of fibers, silica, respirable dust, which is the fraction that has iron particles in it, and it'll be the entirety of all those that probably will lead us to a conclusion one way or the other," he said.

The study also raised questions about whether federal guidelines for dust in taconite plants address the problem. Mandel said most of the fibers in the processing plants -- called elongated mineral particles (EMPs) -- are about a quarter of the size of the smallest hair follicle, smaller than what the guidelines measure.