Minn. Unions, Lawmakers Angered by Delay of Cancer Data

A day after the the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) came under fire for withholding information on additional cases of mesothelioma among Minnesota's Iron Range workers, the department announced that six new cases of the cancer were found among the miners.

In a group of 72,000 people who worked in the state's iron mining industry between the 1930s and 1982, six more cases were identified, which brings the total to 58 miners who have died of the rare cancer.

According to the department, MDH officials learned about the new cases as they reviewed information about the workers and data from the Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System.

Delay Was “Unconscionable”

State legislators and labor unions have blasted the department for delaying the release of previous miner cancer data.

MDH in 2003 first completed a study on the prevalence of mesothelioma among taconite miners after 17 of them were diagnosed with the rare illness. Thirty-five more cases subsequently were identified, but the department waited a year to release the information.

Representatives from the United Steelworkers union demanded to know why MDH withheld such critical information, and the union called for a legislative and criminal investigation into the delayed release of the report.

“It is unconscionable, unethical and probably criminal for a public agency to withhold information about a potential health risk to our workers,” United Steelworkers District 11 Director Bob Bratulich said.

Bratulich added the union is “extremely concerned about the health and safety of our members.”

“We should be told the truth immediately if there is a problem with fibers in the rock of some of these operations,” Bratulich said. “We need to know so that we can deal with them in a manner that protects the health of our members and the community generally, and allows those operations to continue to be productive."

MDH Admits It Should Have Released Data Sooner

In a statement, Health Department Commissioner Diane Mandernach apologized for the delaying the release of the findings and acknowledged that the department should have released the information sooner.

“We had wanted to release the data about the deaths along with our research plan so that we could assure the mining community we were doing everything possible to respond to the mesothelioma deaths we had identified,” Mandernach said. “That process took longer than expected, but we should have released the information sooner, with or without a plan of action.”

MDH said that a proposed new study would expand and build on the earlier study but would differ from the one conducted in 2003. The department also said that new cases are expected to be discovered as more research and investigations are conducted and that it was seeking funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The study, according to MDH, will look at possible past exposure of workers to taconite dust, as well as potential exposure to commercial asbestos. In addition, it will use a “case-control” strategy to compare workers who developed mesothelioma with those who did not, in an effort to determine what aspect of their jobs might have placed them at risk.

MDH explained that an increase of mesothelioma cases could be explained by the fact that more than 5,000 people once worked at an asbestos ceiling tile factory in Cloquet, Minn. However, according to state officials, that doesn’t account for all of the additional cases.

The department also said that there has been no increase in mesothelioma rates among women who live in that region of the state, and that while the mine workers group did include women, there were no women among the 58 mine workers who developed mesothelioma.

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