(from Duluth News Tribune, published online July 8, 2009) — Letters go out this week, addressed to miners and former miners and their spouses, inviting them to participate in a health study aimed at finding out why a rare cancer is ravaging the Iron Range.
At least 58 people have died from mesothelioma, many times more than should be expected in any one small region. Asbestos in things such as boilers, furnaces and pipes are probably to blame, as a 2003 state study suggested. But debate has raged that taconite dust and other possible sources have never seriously been considered.
Finally finding answers won’t help anyone already afflicted. But the 5,000 to 6,000 men and women still working in the mines stand to benefit from protections that almost certainly would follow definitive research. To them, participation in the study may be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
“This is an historic opportunity to get to the bottom of an issue that’s been lingering for decades,” Diana Harvey, assistant dean for external affairs at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in an interview with the News Tribune editorial page. “There’s a lot of community awareness, but now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts.”
The university was tapped to lead the investigation after the issue sat on the desk of Minnesota’s former health commissioner for a full year, a dropped ball that led to her resignation. After arguing and scraping and searching, lawmakers and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty finally found $4.9 million for the four-phase probe in an insurance fund administered by the state Department of Commerce. Phases include reviewing more than 20,000 taconite worker death certificates and studying studies already completed, even if they never could pin down why Iron Rangers were dying.
This summer’s random health screening, in which miners and former miners are being invited by letter to participate, involves health-history questionnaires, chest X-rays, breathing tests and blood tests. Workups won’t cost participants anything beyond an hour or two of their time, but they could lead to discoveries that would make mining safer.
“Do miners die of things more than they should, compared to rates elsewhere in the state? This is about any health problem that could be related to dust exposure,” said Dr. Jeff Mandel, the study’s principal investigator.
At a meeting in Eveleth last month, miners and former miners offered to participate in the health screening. The enthusiasm was commendable but not practical. To assure accurate results that come from random sampling and scientific surveying, volunteers aren’t allowed.
So the letters going out this week are critical. If one lands in your mailbox, please take it seriously. To thousands of fellow Iron Rangers, the decision to participate is — quite literally — a matter of life and death.