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For taconite workers, more concerns about asbestos, mesothelioma

Mining is tightly linked with northeastern Minnesota. It is one of the signature industries of the region, an economic engine that for decades has provided a career and income to thousands of the state’s residents. But it’s becoming clearer that the job may have put some of those workers at risk of developing serious health issues.

One of those illnesses is the aggressive cancer mesothelioma. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, St. Louis County – a hub of the taconite industry – has ranked among the highest in the nation for mesothelioma mortality rate. New research offers more evidence that asbestos in the mining industry may be to blame.

Asbestos exposure and taconite workers

High mesothelioma rates have been recorded among the state’s iron ore workers since the late 1990s, according to a paper from University of Minnesota lead researcher Jeffrey Mandel. More than 100 cases have been reported to the Department of Health.

Mandel’s paper, published at the end of 2018, looks at different studies that examined lung disease in the state’s mine workers, including the role of asbestiform elongate mineral particles (EMPs) – particles more commonly referred to as simply asbestos. While Mandel could not reach a firm conclusion due to the way other studies distinguished between different types of particles, the paper’s findings “suggest that mesothelioma in taconite miners is related to EMP exposure.”

“We think the most likely scenario is that the mesotheliomas we’re seeing more recently were caused by workers inhaling asbestos particles at work in these early days of the industry,” Mandel said.

It can take decades to see symptoms

It can take a long time for symptoms of mesothelioma to show themselves, with a diagnosis sometimes not coming until many decades after a person was first exposed. Asbestosis – a chronic lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers – can also present itself after a long period of waiting.

Because of this lengthy latency period, it’s very possible more cases of mesothelioma among Minnesota’s taconite workers surface in the years ahead.

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