Health Study Finds Link Between Mesothelioma and Years in Taconite Industry

December 01, 2014 11:18 PM

After six years and $4.9 million come the results of a University of Minnesota study looking into what's behind higher than normal rates of cancer in Iron Range miners and whether mining dust or asbestos is to blame. 

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The research team presented the findings Monday night to a full house at the Hibbing Memorial building. 

Back in 2008, the University  launched the Taconite Workers Health Study, in response to the discovery of an unusual number of cases of mesothelioma in miners.

Researches found that taconite workers have a higher than expected death rate from three diseases: mesothelioma, lung cancer and heart disease when compared to people in Minnesota. 

They determined that the length of time people worked in the industry was linked to higher levels of mesothelioma, but not lung cancer.

Exposure to a fiber-like mineral, referred to as an EMP, was linked to mesothelioma but not lung cancer. However, EMP exposure could be from either mining dust or commercial asbestos, according to this study.

"Even though we couldn't pinpoint some of the reasons for mesothelioma we know the mesothelioma is related to working in the industry," Jeffrey Mandel, the principal investigator said. 

David Mlakar has spent 36 years working on the Range in the mining industry, now with U.S. Steel.

"I'm just a little bit disappointed because we weren't able to pinpoint if it was really commercial asbestos or coming from the ore body," Mlakar said.

Scientists said it is important to note that the overall risk of mesothelioma is low compared to other disease frequencies.

"We also found evidence of other conditions that are probably equally or more important because they are a lot more common," Mandel said. 

The study found x-ray evidence of dust-related scarring of the lung and lung lining (pleura) in mining workers

Mlakar said more work is needed, in particular a study similar to the ones used to determine the risk of using commercial asbestos. 

"Test the mineral; that's all we need," Mlakar said. "Test the mineral, and I think we can answer the questions."

David Trach, who retired from LTV in 1996 after working 36 years in the industry, pointed deaths of former friends and LTV co-workers from lung-related diseases as reasons scientists need to continue to look for more definitive answers. 

"Hopefully this is ongoing, that they'll monitor whatever they can watch and look over and make sure that what we are doing and what we are trying to do is going to be better for the people who work in the mines," Trach said. 

Researchers said they'd like to keep monitoring the subjects that were never exposed to asbestos, the post-1982 cohort, and hopefully get some more answers. 


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