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U takes lead of studies linking taconite mining and cancer

The University’s School of Public Health (SPH) has taken the lead role in a research initiative examining the relationship between a rare form of cancer and taconite mining in northern Minnesota.

The SPH is partnering with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which turned over control of the research in June when it came under fire for suppressing information about the number of deaths from mesothelioma among miners on the Iron Range. At least 58 former miners have died of mesothelioma, a cancer that has been strongly linked to asbestos exposure.

Now the University and the MDH want to find out if something in the taconite mines is leading to this cancer and other lung diseases. Many people are concerned that taconite ore may contain asbestos or asbestos-like mineral fibers.

“The collaboration is what makes this so powerful,” says MDH Commissioner Sanne Magnan, M.D., Ph.D., Medical School Class of 1983. “These studies will answer some questions that have needed to be answered for many years.”

In late April, the state legislature approved $4.9 million for three University-led studies: a comprehensive assessment of taconite dust, a case-control study of mesothelioma-related deaths, and a study to examine lung health of current and former miners.

“We are pleased that the governor and legislature came together to provide funding for these important research projects,” says SPH Dean John R. Finnegan Jr., Ph.D. “We and our partners look forward to providing some long-awaited answers about the serious health issues facing mine workers on the Iron Range.”

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