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Asbestos News

Asbestos in MN Iron Mines Claims Significant Number of Lives

Reviving a 35-year-old controversy on Minnesota's Iron Range, the state Health Department said on Wednesday that a rare asbestos-related cancer is killing miners in significantly greater numbers than previously reported.

A new analysis found that 35 miners died of mesothelioma from 1997 through 2005 -- double the number reported killed by the disease in the previous nine-year period. In all, 52 Iron Range mine workers died of the disease since 1988, all of them men.

In northeast Minnesota, where dusty iron- ore mines have operated for more than a century, mesothelioma strikes men at more than twice the rate in the rest of the state, the department said. Women there have lower rates of the disease, suggesting that the higher rate among men is job-related.

But the Health Department hasn't linked the deaths to mine dust. Nor did health officials repudiate their controversial 2003 study, which said commercial asbestos used in boilers and other equipment, rather than mine dust, is the most likely cause of miners' mesothelioma.

That study has been criticized by mine workers and others, including former U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, who have said it didn't dig deep enough into the problem.

Now, the department said Wednesday, it plans to launch a three-year study that examines whether past mine-dust exposure is linked to cancer, along with other research to assess the health risks of breathing asbestos-like fragments produced during mining and iron-ore processing. The latter study aims to set state exposure limits for those fibers, officials said.

Bitter confirmation

For Joe Scholar, 84, of Virginia, Minn. a retired mine supervisor who suffers from lung disease, the growing death toll is a bitter confirmation of his 20-year effort to convince health officials that ore mining caused cancer.

"It is undeniable," said Scholar, who served on an advisory committee for a 2003 state study. "I am hoping I live long enough to see this exposed."

Health officials warned that asbestos exposure also puts workers at risk for other asbestos-related illnesses like lung cancer and lung-scarring asbestosis. Those diseases potentially affect many more people than mesothelioma would. Yet officials offered only generic health advice to current miners.

"We still don't know any more than we did in 2003," said Mary Manning, director of the Health Department division overseeing the effort. "What people should do is continue to get regular health care, not smoke, watch their weight, eat a good diet. There is no screening for mesothelioma. Taking positive actions for their health is the only thing we can recommend right now."

Mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lung, but takes decades to strike. Needle-like asbestos fibers first lodge deep in the lungs, causing inflammation and plaque that restricts breathing. In some cases, the condition progresses to the deadly cancer. In Minnesota, it strikes less than 3 in 100,000 people.

The cancer snuck up on Alver Uncini of Chisholm, Minn. For 10 months, he suffered intense pain from his chest area to his back, but doctors and a chiropractor did not immediately discover the problem, said his son, Robert.

Then he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Two months later, on Nov. 15, 2004, he died. He was 80.

Uncini, who had worked in the mines for 34 years, had retired from the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron, Minn., in the mid-1980s.

"The trouble with mesothelioma is that it is hard to detect and by the time they find it, it is usually too late to do anything anyway," Robert Uncini said. "I hate to see anyone suffer from that."I'm glad to see that [new studies are being conducted]," Uncini said, "because I worked in the mines for 30 years myself." He said he had just retired from Hibbing Taconite, and recalled that in the early years at the plant, none of the workers wore respirators.

The Health Department identified the 52 mesothelioma victims by comparing names in a statewide cancer registry with a database of 72,000 people who worked in Minnesota's iron-mining industry between the 1930s and 1982. That means miners who died of mesothelioma after moving to other states are not counted.

Officials said the new studies will cost up to $1.2 million. In the planned exposure study, officials will use data on how much workers in various jobs were exposed to the dust, and then compare whether workers in dusty jobs had higher rates of mesothelioma.

The department has applied for federal research grants, but Manning said the projects will go ahead regardless of whether that money comes through.

Data found a year ago

Manning said officials spent a year reviewing data and planning the response after researchers discovered the higher mesothelioma toll in March 2006.

Officials from the United Union of Steelworkers and the mining industry endorsed the studies. But Robert Bratu- lich, director of the District 11 Steelworkers union, said a larger study should have been done long ago "and as I recall, the Health Department refused to do that."