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Four new cases of asbestos-related cancer to be included in University of Minnesota’s Taconite Workers Health Study

News Release - For Immediate Use    


Contacts: John Stieger, MDH Communications Office (651) 201-4998; Diana Harvey
U of M School of Public Health (612) 625-7134


MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (03/30/2010) —As part of its ongoing participation with a University of Minnesota study of respiratory health issues in Minnesota taconite workers, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has identified four additional cases of mesothelioma in a group of 69,000 people who worked in the state’s iron mining industry between the 1930s and 1982.

Mesothelioma is a rare, fatal form of cancer seen almost exclusively in people who have been exposed to asbestos. Health officials say it's not surprising to see additional reports of the illness among the miners, since it can take as long as 40 or 50 years to develop mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos. They expected to find additional cases as the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study proceeds.

The four new cases bring the total number of workers diagnosed to 63. MDH officials learned about the new cases as they reviewed information about the workers from the Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System (MCSS). The new data are part of the entire cancer profile of taconite miners that will be used by researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who are conducting the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study – a legislatively authorized and funded study signed into law in 2008 by Governor Pawlenty.


“It is important that we find answers to the many long-standing questions about the relationship between taconite mining and respiratory health,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Sanne Magnan. “The Minnesota Department of Health will continue working with the University of Minnesota to complete this important research.”


The Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study consists of five interrelated studies: Occupational Exposure Assessment, Mortality (cause of death) Study, Cancer Incidence Study, Respiratory Health Survey of Taconite Workers and Spouses, and Environmental Study of Airborne Particulates. In addition to investigating the excess cases of mesothelioma among taconite workers, these studies will look more broadly at a range of respiratory diseases and diseases associated with silica and asbestos exposure. The goal is to determine the relationship between working in the taconite industry and health issues, especially lung health.


“Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health are making progress across the various projects, thanks to broad community support and engagement,” said John R. Finnegan, Jr., dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Today, we continue to collect and analyze data, but over the next couple of years, we look forward to sharing our results with the community as soon as they are available.”

One key component of the university’s study is a respiratory health survey of taconite workers and their spouses. The university is hoping to evaluate the respiratory health of 1200 current and former taconite workers and up to 800 spouses. The survey includes spouses because they may have been exposed to dust brought home on workers’ clothing. People who have questions about the survey should call the University of Minnesota toll free at 888-840-7590.

Previously, MDH conducted a study of mesothelioma in the miners after 17 of them were diagnosed with the rare illness. That study was completed in 2003. Forty-two more cases were subsequently identified, bringing the total to 59, before the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study began and the four additional cases were identified. The 2003 study was the first to ever conclusively document the occurrence of mesothelioma in Minnesota mine workers. However, the earlier study was not designed to look at potential exposure of the workers to taconite dust.


For more information about the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study, visit