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Studying Iron Range miners' health

Published (3/7/2008)
By Mike Cook
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A rare, fatal form of cancer, mesothelioma comes primarily from asbestos fiber, which is naturally occurring in some Iron Range areas. In analyzing data, the Department of Health found that 58 Iron Range miners have died from mesothelioma, a disease that can take decades to develop following exposure. Those that died are among 72,000 people that worked in the state’s iron mining industry between the 1930s and 1982.

Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) sponsors HF3569 that would make a onetime $4.9 million appropriation from the workers compensation special fund for the university to lead an evidence-based, industry-specific study of workers’ health, including lung health.

“We want to get to the bottom of this once and for all,” he said.

Approved March 5 by the House Higher Education and Work Force Policy and Finance Division, the bill was sent to the House Housing Policy and Finance and Public Health Finance Division.

A companion bill, SF3300, sponsored by Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), awaits action by the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee.

“I’m asking your help not for me … but for the new miners who are just starting,” said Charlie Olson, a third-generation steelworker, who worked in mines for 38 years. “If this is a hazard to them, hopefully we can found out why and repair it.”

The university will work on the study with the Health Department, Natural Resources Research Institute at the university’s Duluth campus and other private and public organizations and affected groups. Work must be completed by 2013.

Jeff Mandel, an associate professor in the school’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences, said the study would include comparing the effects of different exposure levels, and a comparison of current and former miners on their health status versus how long they were employed in the mines.

Other family members may also be tested because of concern over potential harmful effects for others exposed to dust from taconite operations.

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