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Asbestos News

Commercial asbestos caused miners' cancer

MESOTHELIOMA: Study says jobs in Iron Range mines and elsewhere -- as engineers, carpenters and plumbers -- probably exposed men to asbestos.

By Melanie Evans, News Tribune, February 27, 2003

Northeastern Minnesota miners who developed a rare cancer didn't hold jobs that exposed them to large amounts of mineral dust -- long suspected as a culprit, a Minnesota Health Department study says.

Instead, the draft report cites work with commercial asbestos during a lifetime of work inside and outside the mining industry as the cause of lung and abdomen cancer among 14 of 17 Minnesota men diagnosed with mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996.

But the report stopped short of describing the mineral dust as harmless and called for further investigation to clarify the link between the dust and lung diseases and several cancers.

The draft report, released Wednesday by the Health Department, expands on a summary published last week that concluded that commercial asbestos, rather than minerals on the Iron Range, probably caused the cancer among former miners.

Health officials released a draft after the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the News Tribune filed legal requests under public information laws.

Buddy Ferguson, Minnesota Health Department spokesman, said agency epidemiologists won't comment on the report until a final draft is released March 7 in Virginia.

The unfinished report began four years ago in an effort to sort through possible causes -- including minerals in the Iron Range -- for Northeastern Minnesota's sharply higher rates of the lung cancer.

In 1997, a report found an unusually high number of Northeastern Minnesota men with mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996. Doctors diagnosed 54 men in the region's seven counties with the rare cancer, 73 percent more than expected. No similar spike was found among women, pointing to mining jobs as a possible cause.

Inhaling asbestos fibers increases the risk of painful, sometimes fatal, damage to the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The tumors don't emerge for 30-50 years after exposure.

Larry Sundberg, St. Louis County's epidemiologist, said the strong link between commercial asbestos and the cancer suggests the minerals aren't the culprit.

The report compared the names of 432 Minnesotans diagnosed with mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996 with the records of nearly 71,650 people who worked in seven Northeastern Minnesota mines before 1983. Seventeen names, all men, appeared on both lists.

Eleven held jobs that involved exposure to commercial asbestos, according to interviews. Jobs ranged from carpenter foreman and locomotive fireman to nonmining jobs such as plumber and boiler operator. Another three held jobs -- drillers, furnace operators, shovel operators or nonmining carpenters -- that had a lower, but still likely, risk of exposure to asbestos. Two of the 17 also worked at Conwed Corp., a Cloquet ceiling tile manufacturer that used asbestos in its products.

Health officials blame Conwed for Carlton County's excessive rate of men diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is Minnesota's highest. Of 54 men diagnosed with mesothelioma between 1988 and 1996, nine once worked for Conwed. But Conwed alone can't account for the high rate of the cancer.

The Minnesota Health Department's limited study of miners' exposure to commercial asbestos also fails to explain the region's troubling rate of the cancer, attorney Byron Starns said.

Starns represented the state in its case against Reserve Mining Co. The state alleged that mineral and rock fragments dumped in Lake Superior by Reserve violated federal water pollution laws. In April 1974, U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord ordered Reserve to stop dumping crushed rock in the lake. His decision labeled mineral fragments from the east Iron Range as dangerous based on their resemblance to asbestos fibers known to cause lung cancer, Starns said.

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