Funding sought for Iron Range cancer research

ST. PAUL -- Studies exploring the cause of a rare lung cancer among Iron Range miners are moving forward even as lawmakers consider how to fund the research.

ST. PAUL -- Studies exploring the cause of a rare lung cancer among Iron Range miners are moving forward even as lawmakers consider how to fund the research.

University of Minnesota officials told a House panel Wednesday they plan four studies related to the mesothelioma cases and other health issues for taconite industry employees and communities, following the release of data pointing to an abnormally high rate of the cancer among mine workers.

Lawmakers say completion of the multi-year research is important because previous efforts to look into the health effects of mining never were finished. There long have been questions about whether asbestos fibers present in the iron ore mining process pose health concerns.

"What we're trying to do is get to the bottom of this once and for all," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said.

Rukavina and other Iron Range legislators are seeking $4.9 million for the research. The studies are being led by the University's School of Public Health and the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth.


The state Health Department in 2007 linked the deaths of 58 mining industry workers to mesothelioma, which is believed to be caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure.

"These cases were clearly in excess of the types of cases that one would normally expect to see in an average type population," John Finnegan, dean of the University's School of Public Health, told representatives.

The research will include studying the cause of death of an estimated 70,000 people who worked in the state's taconite mines from the 1950s to the 1980s. Researchers also will evaluate current and former miners to determine whether there is a link between health conditions and time spent in the mines.

They also will compare the exposure to potentially harmful materials by the 58 mesothelioma victims and others who did not develop the cancer.

Lawmakers sought the University's assistance last year after former Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach confirmed the agency had withheld data about mesothelioma cases. The Health Department, under a new commissioner, is working with the University on the research.

The health studies will cost $4.1 million. The remaining $800,000 would be spent to conduct air sampling in communities on the Iron Range.

The studies are expected to be complete within five years, but legislators want to be updated annually on the research.

Rukavina proposed funding the studies with money from a workers' compensation fund. He said fewer state dollars will be needed if state health officials can tap into federal research funds.


Similar legislation has been introduced in the Minnesota Senate.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports funding the mesothelioma studies, spokesman Brian McClung said. He said the governor's plan to pay for the research will be part of a supplemental budget proposal he will release soon.

Miners deserve to know if their health is at risk and how they can protect themselves, Iron Ranger Charlie Olson told Rukavina's Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee on Wednesday.

But the results may be more important to young miners new to the industry, said Olson, a 60-year-old Hibbing Taconite employee.

"If this is a hazard to them, hopefully we can find out why and repair it," he said.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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