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Miners Health Study the End of a
Long Wait

(by Janna Goerdt, Duluth News Tribune, published online October 4, 2009)

VIRGINIA—One by one, the miners have entered the small collection of offices at Virginia Regional Medical Center.

Inside, the study volunteers have their chests X-rayed, they have blood drawn, and they breathe into machines to find out how well their lungs work. They offer up their medical histories.

And their answers may help to solve a medical mystery that has troubled many who live and work on the Iron Range: Why, exactly, do taconite miners have such a high incidence of lung disease, including the deadly cancer mesothelioma? And why have people had to wait so long for real answers?

The next months may be the beginning of the end to their wait, because the health screening portion of the University of Minnesota’s Taconite Workers Health Study is finally in full swing.

There’s a phrase that officials who talk about the study tend to use: “once and for all.”

“I’m glad that, once and for all, we will finally get to the bottom of this,” said state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who, along with other Iron Range legislators, has long pushed for such a study. “We want the honest truth, whatever the truth is.”

Like others, Rukavina hopes the university’s three- to five-year, $4.8 million, multi-pronged study will be the definitive end to decades of studies that looked at some portion of some taconite workers’ health. But the larger question had always remained.

“Mining has always been a dangerous job,” said Rukavina, who noted that both his father and grandfather worked in the mines. “If there is something in the ore — and that’s an ‘if’ — we have to figure out the ways to make sure the dust doesn’t harm people.”

Since mid-August, the first of an expected 1,200 miners and 800 miners’ spouses have been trickling through the new suite of offices at the Virginia hospital. A little less than half of the first wave of 300 or so miners contacted by the university have responded for the voluntary study, said field supervisor Nancy Tekautz.

But the testing schedule is now solidly booked through October, said principal investigator Dr. Jeffrey Mandel, and the university is considering adding more staff to accommodate more miners.

“We purposely scheduled very lightly through the first six weeks or so,” Mandel said. “When we start these studies, we don’t want to over-schedule. We want to make sure all our methods are correct.”

The university has sent 200 to 300 letters every few weeks, inviting randomly selected miners and spouses to take part in the testing. The free process takes about two hours and examines the participants’ overall respiratory health, not just whether they have asbestosis or mesothelioma. This is the piece of the puzzle that has always been missing, Mandel said.

While individual mines have conducted their own studies about employees’ respiratory health, and the Minnesota Department of Health completed a 2003 study that linked taconite miners who had developed mesothelioma to commercial asbestos exposure in the mines, no other study has tried to simply gauge how healthy past and present miners’ lungs are, Mandel said.

“It’s fair to say the issue has never been looked at in as comprehensive a fashion as we are doing,” Mandel said. “We have the best chance to get the most insights with this effort.”

The current study has five distinct parts:

  • Close examination of airborne particles collected from various sites on the Iron Range.
  • Analyzing cancer rates among taconite miners.
  • Analyzing mortality rates among taconite miners.
  • Evaluating miners’ current and historical exposure to taconite dust while on the job.
  • And the health survey going on at the Virginia hospital.

This last component is “the one type of information the state does not collect,” Mandel said. “That’s what makes this study so comprehensive.”

Researchers are hoping that as many miners as possible decide to partake in the health survey. Because the data the university collects is confidential, Tekautz declined to speak specifically about any participant, and why the miners have chosen to be part of the study so far.

“My overall sense is that the people of the Iron Range who agree to participate are very committed to [the study],” Tekautz said. “They are no more apprehensive than anyone would be who is facing an examination or testing procedure. They want to do it, but are still a little nervous.”

Mandel believes the miners are drawn by two interests: To learn whether they have any problems with their lungs, and to help the community learn whether health problems can be linked to mining practices.

“That’s been hanging out there for quite a long time,” he said, “and this is an opportunity to put those questions to rest, once and for all.”