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Latest data on taconite workers shows increase in cancer deaths

Health officials studying the mesothelioma rate among Iron Range workers in Minnesota report that deaths from the deadly disease have reached 82, up from 63 in 2010.


A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota has been investigating the occupational health hazards faced by workers in the taconite industry since 2008.


Taconite is a low-concentrate iron ore that has been mined and processed in Minnesota since the 1950s. Mesothelioma is a rare and invariably fatal lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. The disease is often diagnosed decades after initial exposure.


The Duluth News Tribune reported that the latest cases of mesothelioma were discovered through a check of death records in other states for former Iron Range residents who moved out of Minnesota.


In a telephone news conference, Jeffrey Mandel, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and lead researcher in the Taconite Workers Health Study, said the mesothelioma rate is considerably higher than it should be among Iron Range workers.


The Taconite Workers Health Study, a $4.9 million research initiative funded by the State of Minnesota, aims to determine the extent to which exposure to dust from taconite affects the health of workers and their spouses, with specific focus on respiratory diseases and illness associated with silica and asbestos exposure.


The study has five components: an occupational exposure assessment to determine the source of the asbestos; a mortality study to investigate the cause of death for Iron Range workers; a cancer incidence study to determine if taconite mining is related to higher rates of certain cancers; a respiratory health survey to evaluate current workers and spouses for lung diseases; and an environmental study of airborne particulates to assess asbestos levels on the range.


Mandel said the team is “on target" to have results from each of the five components of the research within five years.


The study of health issues of iron mining workers began in the early 1980s, when the University of Minnesota School of Public Health created a roster of 70,000 people who worked in the Iron Range for at least a year before 1982. In the late 1990s, the Minnesota Department of Health, which had begun monitoring cancer rates in Iron Rangers, identified an increase in mesothelioma cases compared to expected cases for the northeastern part of Minnesota.


To date, the research has identified causes of death for more than 13,000 people, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and non-malignant respiratory disease.