Answers like dust: miners’ health study closes with questions

Hull Rust Mine view, 2013 (PHOTO:

The view of the Hull Rust Mine pit in June 2013. (PHOTO, ndwick, Flickr Creative Commons)

Iron Range newsYesterday, researchers unveiled results of a $5 million University of Minnesota study exploring the connection between iron mining and the rare lung disease mesothelioma. What was billed as the final public forum about the study was held last night at the Hibbing Memorial Building.

John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune had the story in today’s paper:

Early results from the study were released in April 2013 and found a definitive correlation between working in taconite mines and processing plants and mesothelioma, an always-fatal lung disease previously associated only with commercial asbestos.

But when researchers tried to mine deeper into the data, and even as they studied hundreds of Iron Range workers’ health histories, they couldn’t answer the question of where the microscopic mineral fibers that caused the mesothelioma are coming from — either commercial asbestos, such as insulation, or from even smaller fibers that occur naturally in the taconite-bearing rock of the eastern Iron Range.

The result leaves unanswered whether or not the microscopic fibers found in taconite rock actually cause lung disease.

What researchers and miners alike wanted to accomplish was to understand the link between the fibers unlocked by the mining process and  health risks. What we have instead is a sense that *something* in the rock or the practice of mining seems to be having an effect on health. Further, there is more mesothelioma in miners than the general population. The connections are not clear.

From here, the study will be delivered to the legislature and governor. It’s hard to see any actionable legislation coming out of what’s been done so far, however. Leaders — if they were so inclined — could fund more research. Rep. Tom Anzelc told me he’s interested in exploring that option, particularly because there is some kind of health threat happening even if we’re not clear on why it’s there.


  1. If a 5M dollar study couldn’t find the link between mesothelioma and working in the mines not sure what a new study would find. How much higher are the rates of mesothelioma on the Range than in Duluth or Twin cities? Very unsatisfying report on a deadly disease.

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