Range health study needs more active steelworkersA study to find out why a high number of Iron Range residents have died from a rare lung disease has seen good cooperation from retirees but needs more active taconite workers to accept the call.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
A study to find out why a high number of Iron Range residents have died from a rare lung disease has seen good cooperation from retirees but needs more active taconite workers to accept the call.
University of Minnesota officials say they are halfway through testing the 1,200 taconite workers and 800 spouses they need to participate so the study reaches solid conclusions.
Former and current taconite industry workers from across the Range have been getting invitations to participate for nearly a year. So far, about
1,000 people have been tested.
“We’ve received fantastic cooperation from the retirees. But, halfway through where we need to be, we’re feeling like we need more respondents from the current work force,’’ said Diana Harvey, spokeswoman for the University’s School of Public Health.
Because the study is based on a random sample, people can’t volunteer. Harvey said it’s not clear why more active taconite workers haven’t responded to the invitations, which come in a plain white envelope from the university.
Invitations are sent to more people each month and will be sent until a full 2,000 people are tested.
Participation involves a medical office visit for a lung capacity test, chest X-ray, blood sample and medical history.
The results are confidential and are available to the person in about 30 days.
Study officials hope to finish the tests by August and have some conclusions by 2011, although it could be 2015 before a full report is available.
Mike Woods, who has worked at the Minntac taconite plant in Mountain Iron for nearly 17 years and is president of Local 1938 of the United Steelworkers of America, said he’s strongly urging anyone who gets an invitation to participate.
“This is our one shot to find to what’s going on with this problem. If we don’t get some answers now, we may never get them,” he said. “I don’t know why guys aren’t going in. … I’ve heard from some people they’re afraid the company will find out and that they’ll lose their job for cooperating. But that’s not true. The company supports this, as far as I know, and the whole thing is anonymous. Nobody knows but you and, if you want, your doctor.”
The university’s School of Public Health is leading the $4.9 million research study, funded by the state of Minnesota, to find out more about health issues of taconite workers on the Iron Range — especially lung ailments and specifically mesothelioma. The university’s Medical School, University of Minnesota Duluth and UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute also are involved in the study.
The study is a deeper look into why a higher- than-average number of Iron Range residents have developed mesothelioma, a rare and always fatal lung disease always associated with silica and asbestos exposure. At least 63 people in the area have died from the disease, many times more than would be expected from the general population.
It’s hoped the research will determine the extent to which working in the taconite industry and exposure to dust from the taconite industry affects the health of workers.
The study also will look at other ailments that may be occurring in past and present taconite workers.
The effort also is pouring over tens of thousands of death certificates of former Iron Range miners to see if there are clues to widespread or reoccurring disease. Another effort is testing air in taconite plants and other locations across the Range to see what current workers are exposed to on the job.
“We’re still in the field on that as well,’’ Harvey said Monday.
In 2003, a state study concluded the cause of the lung disease was probably asbestos from commercial sources — boilers, furnaces and pipes — and not fibers that occur naturally in taconite iron ore. But critics say the study never seriously considered taconite as the source of the problem.