Study of Iron Range miners examines tripled mesothelioma rateSomething is happening in Northeastern Minnesota. For years, doctors and public health workers have reported higher-than-average rates of lung cancer and heart disease among miners working the state's Iron Range, an arrowhead-shaped region where Lake Superior and the Canadian border come together. And the Duluth News Tribune reports an even more sinister trend: these miners - called "Rangers" - are getting malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) at three times the national rate.
In response, scientists at the University of Minnesota are wrapping up a five-year public health study into the miners' pleural and pulmonary wellness. However, these scientists have noted that it's unclear whether the region's iron ore is to blame.
A multi-pronged approach
The survey, called the Minnesota Taconite Workers Health Study (MTWHS), has received $5 million in funding from the State of Minnesota and its Department of Health, the University of Minnesota and Iron Range Resources.
Overall, the study has four primary goals. First, researchers will assess and record the respiratory health of Iron Range workers and their spouses. The study will also maintain an ongoing record of Rangers' evental causes of death. Furthermore, scientists will use a portion of the funding to test the area's levels of airborne particles.
Finally, researchers will gauge Rangers' levels of environmental and occupational exposure to taconite. This iron-laden sedimentary rock was once considered little more than a waste material. However, as veins of purer iron ore became scarce, mining companies looked to taconite to cover the gap.
Exposure to taconite dust has been linked to a number of respiratory problems. But is it causing the unusually high rate of mesothelioma in the Iron Range? Investigators are unsure.
Just 'one of the possibilities'
Jeff Mandel, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and the MTWHS lead researcher, told the News Tribune that occupational taconite exposure may or may not be the ultimate culprit.
"That's one of the possibilities. It could be we don't see any relationship to the workplace," he explained, quoted by the newspaper.
Evidently, it has been difficult to pin the 300 percent higher MPM rate on taconite alone. The news source noted that in the past few years, 82 Rangers have died of mesothelioma, an epidemic that points to some toxic agent - but what?
The mineral at work may be asbestos. Researchers told the newspaper that they are currently checking to see how many Rangers have worked in asbestos mines, at shipyards or aboard naval vessels, which at one time contained plenty of asbestos-based insulation.
Final results are expected in 2013.
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