Eveleth, MN—The Iron Range region of Minnesota, which has a total population of just over 320,000, has recently seen a spike in the number of mesothelioma cases reported. In order to find out why the disease has become so prevalent in the area, the state is funding a $4.9 million study, which will be conducted by the University of Minnesota.
Fifty-eight Iron Range residents have died of mesothelioma, which is an extremely rare cancer. It targets the mesothelium, the outer lining of body cavities surrounding the heart, stomach and lungs. Mesothelioma’s only known cause is exposure to asbestos, the carcinogenic and fibrous mineral which occurs naturally, but is also used in the manufacture of insulation and other building products. The rate of mesothelioma in the Iron Range region is twice as high as in other parts of Minnesota.
Since the area is the nation’s largest taconite production area, and asbestos was common in the taconite mining and processing industry, researchers will study those who have worked in taconite mines. Dr. David Perlman, a researcher at the University who will be working on the study, said that he hopes to have a total of 2,000 participants – 1,200 active or retired taconite workers, and 800 of their spouses. Specifically, the study will look at the workers’ respiratory health.
“This is really the first comprehensive attempt to look at the exposures of the dust from taconite mining and to try to get a real sense of what the health effects of exposure to that dust are,” said Perlman.
The participants have been selected from employment records at several local companies. They will range in age, the number of years they have worked in the taconite industry, and in location.
Mesothelioma, like other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, is characterized by a very long latency period. It does not become symptomatic until years after the exposure to asbestos has taken place, and by the time it is diagnosed it has usually become nearly untreatable. There is currently no known cure for mesothelioma.
Asbestos was widely used in the construction, automotive and shipbuilding industries for a number of years, due to its extreme strength, durability, flexibility and resistance to heat and fire. Its toxic nature has led to bans on it use in many countries, although it remains legal in regulated amounts in the United States, and is still in place in many products and structures throughout the world. Generally considered safe if it remains stable, asbestos has microscopic fibers which, when they are disturbed through mining, manufacture or damage, can become lodged in the body’s soft tissues.