Northeastern Minnesota has over twice the expected rate of mesothelioma, especially in the Iron Range region where taconite mining is suspected of being the cause of exposure to asbestos. The higher rates prompted a study by the Minnesota Department of Health in 2003; however since the conclusion of that project, many more have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Taconite is a low-grade iron ore that is often interlayered with other minerals such as quartz, chert or carbonate. Taconite was first discovered in the 1870’s in Minnesota, yet at the time was thought to be useless because of the difficulty of extracting high grade iron from the rock. However a process was discovered in the 1940’s that made mining taconite profitable and created an economic opportunity for those in the area. The Mesabi Iron Range is a major area for mining taconite in Minnesota.
Due to the continued diagnosis of mesothelioma cases and deaths due to this disease after the 2003 study, another research study was started in 2007 by the University of Minnesota. The $4.9 million study is a long term project involving about 2,000 current and former iron range workers to try to determine exactly how the exposure to asbestos is occurring and whether there is an additional cause of the high numbers of illness among miners.
The study will also be exploring whether cause of mesothelioma is coming from somewhere other than exposure to the iron pellets and if spouses of iron workers are at heightened risk as well. Researchers are hoping to release results from the study before the end of the year.
Miners who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma are hoping the study establishes what they believe to be true- that mining was the cause of the exposure that led to their fatal illnesses. Of specific concern is getting help with the cost of medical treatments once they have developed mesothelioma, which can be costly.