U of M experts want mine workers to accept free health tests

EVELETH - Past and present taconite workers will receive letters from the University of Minnesota in coming weeks inviting them to participate in a massive screening for a rare lung disease.

Iron Range miners
Sam Ricker stands to ask a question of University of Minnesota health experts Thursday during a meeting in Eveleth on an upcoming health screening of taconite workers. Ricker, who worked more than 35 years at Eveleth Taconite, urged university officials to expand efforts to reach retired workers to participate in the study. (John Myers /

EVELETH - Past and present taconite workers will receive letters from the University of Minnesota in coming weeks inviting them to participate in a massive screening for a rare lung disease.

University medical experts are randomly selecting 1,200 taconite workers and 800 of their spouses for one of three health studies now under way to find out why so many Iron Rangers are dying from mesothelioma.

Letters will be mailed in mid-July and health screenings will begin this fall at the Virginia Regional Medical Center. Results of the screenings will be ready late in 2010.

University officials on Thursday asked Iron Rangers to spread the word that participation of anyone who receives a letter is critical for the study to have meaningful results.

"We need your help in getting some energy behind this,'' said Dr. Jeff Mandel, a U of M health expert.


Along with a review of more than 20,000 taconite worker death certificates and another cancer screening effort, Mandel said the random health screening will help determine if exposure to taconite dust is causing mesothelioma and other lung disease.

"Certainly there is a suspicion it is. We wouldn't be up here if we didn't think there was a pretty good chance at a link,'' Mandel said.

There are more than 70,000 known former employees of Iron Range taconite plants from 1952 through 2009, he said.

Those who participate will receive two lung capacity tests, a chest x-ray, full physical and blood test, as well as a health questionnaire screening. Individual results will be shared with participants and their doctors but will not be made public.

About 60 taconite workers, most of them retired, jammed the Iron Range Resources board room Thursday afternoon to hear about the screening. Most pledged support, although some wondered why they couldn't volunteer.

"I think it's a bunch of baloney,'' said Robert Bassing of Buhl, who's worked at Minntac for 33 years and says he may already have symptoms of lung disease.

Others urged the university staff not to count on mining companies to provide complete lists of past and present employees. Some said they were asked to sign release forms before their company provided the university with their names and addresses, noting some employees were afraid to participate.

"The mining companies always throw out the fear that, if anything comes of this [linking taconite to lung disease] that they would close down the mines,'' said Sam Ricker of Iron, a retired Eveleth Taconite employee with more than 35 years in the mines.


Dave Trach of Eveleth, a retired LTV Steel Mining Co. employee with 38 years in the mines, urged his fellow steelworkers to cooperate.

"I worked with too many people who are gone because of this stuff,'' Trach said. "I want this to work. I want answers.''

The efforts were spurred in recent years after the Minnesota Department of Health found unusually high rates of mesothelioma on the Iron Range. At least 58 people in the area have died from the disease, many times more than would be expected from the general population.

In 2003, a state study concluded the cause of the lung diseases was probably asbestos from commercial sources -- boilers, furnaces and pipes -- and not fibers that occur naturally in taconite ore. But critics say the study never seriously considered taconite as the source of the problem.

While the new studies can't do anything to help those who already have developed the disease, officials say it may help determine the source to protect current and future mine and plant workers.

For more information on the health screening go to or call (888) 840-7590.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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