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Iron Range mesothelioma study finds some answers

A University team is investigating whether dust from taconite mines like this one near Eveleth, Minn., contributes to cancer. (Photo: Bergerson Photography)

Does taconite dust lead to mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung’s lining? This was the main question that the state Legislature charged University of Minnesota researchers with answering nearly five years ago through the $4.9 million Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study.

So far, the U team has found that for every year worked in the mines, a person’s risk for mesothelioma increased about 3 percent. But there’s more work to do, says lead researcher Jeffrey Mandel, M.D., M.P.H., of the School of Public Health.

The University team now has a good understanding of the exposures to taconite dust in the mines, Mandel says. Most cases of mesothelioma they’re studying likely originated decades ago, when the industry was new and fewer measures to protect workers’ health were taken, he says. Because of updated safety precautions, such as better ventilation and improved engineering systems to process the ore, researchers believe that miners today are not more likely than other people to develop cancer from their workplaces.

Exposure to dust from taconite operations today is generally within acceptable limits, researchers say. In fact, they found that air quality in communities surrounding taconite mines is cleaner in terms of particulates than the air in Minneapolis.

Nonetheless, the number of people who develop mesothelioma and other types of lung cancer on the Iron Range is still higher than what’s expected in the general Minnesota population. Mandel says his team will be preparing a comprehensive report to answer lingering questions in the coming months.

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