The short answer is that the Arrowhead is the location of a great deal of taconite mining, and processing taconite can sometimes expose workers to asbestos dust.
In 1997, the Minnesota Department of Health did an analysis of cancer rates and trends. Two Arrowhead counties, Carlton and St. Louis, ranked among the 50 highest counties in the United States for mortality from mesothelioma. Carlton County was 3rd highest in the United States, while St. Louis County ranked 21st.
The average death rate from mesothelioma in the United States for the period between 2000 and 2009 was 11.1 deaths per million people. In Carlton County, the mesothelioma death rate was 55.1 deaths per million – nearly five times the national average. St. Louis County had a mesothelioma death rate of 25.1 deaths per million.
The Health Department went on to perform additional analyses and record-linkage studies, where employee records were matched with mesothelioma diagnoses. This led to the identification of two large employers as the source of a disproportionate number of mesothelioma claims. Those were taconite mining and the Conwed ceiling-tile manufacturing company. Conwed used asbestos as a component of its tiles between 1958 and 1974.
The company never warned their employees of the hazards despite having actual knowledge of those hazards by at least 1958.
Since mesothelioma has a decades-long latency period, many people who were exposed by working for Conwed may only now be discovering that they have the disease.
Conwed, previously known as the Wood Conversion Company, closed its Cloquet headquarters in 1985. It has faced hundreds of asbestos-disease claims after exposing approximately 6,000 workers to asbestos during their employment.
Some workers’ families claim they were exposed secondarily to asbestos
In some cases, workers at Conwed were exposed to so much asbestos that it was still on their clothes when they came home from work. That may have exposed family members to the deadly mineral fiber.
At least one witness described the clothing as being so coated in asbestos that you could no longer tell the color. Family members who were exposed to this clothing-borne asbestos have allegedly developed mesothelioma or other asbestos diseases.
Conwed remains a major source of litigation
Since the 1980s, at least 43 cases of mesothelioma have been connected to the Conwed plant, among either workers or family members. The Health Department says the fatal lung cancer rate among men in Cloquet is 36% higher than the state average. The rate of mesothelioma is 70 times the average rate.
According to one former worker, the asbestos exposure at Conwed was extensive.
“We was wading shoe-deep in the dog-gone stuff.”
Conwed claims it continually tried to reduce workers’ exposure by reducing the dust and making dust masks and, possibly, respirators available to employees. However, Conwed allegedly did not begin testing its air quality until 1972, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began requiring that. According to some reports, Conwed knew asbestos was hazardous by 1958 at the latest, but it continued to expose workers to the mineral fiber without informing them of the risks.
Conwed eventually sold its factory to U.S. Gypsum Corp. and moved its headquarters to St. Paul. It then moved out of state and ceased operations.
Litigation against Conwed continues until this day.
If you or a loved one has developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease after working for Conwed or in taconite processing, contact Sieben Polk, P.A., for a free, confidential consultation about your rights and options.