In the northeastern part of Minnesota in the United States, there's a region that contains multiple distinct bands of iron ore. Unofficially known as the Iron Range, this area boasts museums, mine tours, and roadside attractions like Honk the Moose and Bob Dylan's childhood home. The area does not flaunt high rates of lung disease, but – like all the outdoor adventures listed on the region's tourism site – it does exist.
Prior to the 19th century, and before it became the Iron Range, this section of Minnesota was inhabited mainly by Native Americans. Toward the end of the 19th century, false reports of gold in the area led to population growth. Since then, men have worked in underground mines to extract hematite, and after – when they feared the hematite would run out – low-grade taconite from the ground.
Fatal Illness on the Range: What's Causing It?
Rates of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and mesothelioma – a rare and deadly form of cancer – are astronomically high for Iron Range mine workers and their families. And for decades, reasons for these illnesses have been, and continue to be, unclear. A recent 6-year University of Minnesota study revealed that iron-mining communities in northern Minnesota have a rate of mesothelioma that's 70 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. But, why? The only known cause of malignant mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as fibers; asbestos fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals, and do not conduct electricity.
Geologists in Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have determined that there are natural asbestos and sulfide-forming minerals in the Gogebic Taconite iron-ore mine in the Badger State's Penokee Range. Because Minnesota's mines contain taconite, as well, we can safely infer that asbestos and other toxic substances are present on the Iron Range, and that miners are being exposed to asbestos as they work.
The confusion in all of this lies here: early workers in the taconite industry handled asbestos often, but researchers haven't been able to differentiate between exposure to toxic fibers from commercial asbestos used for insulation, and exposure to hazardous fibers and materials from taconite dust in the iron ore.
Experts Weigh in on Mining and Asbestos Exposure
Jeffrey Mandel, a principal investigator of the Taconite Workers Health Study, said that it's difficult to disentangle different types of fibers. "All we can say is there is a relationship between fiber-like exposure and the mesothelioma, but we can't break it down any further than that," Mandel affirmed.
After many years of intense research and millions of dollars spent, it's maddening that the Iron Ore mesothelioma mystery has yet to be cracked. So far, 101 Iron Range miners (all men) who worked in the taconite mining industry between the 1930s and the 1980s have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. And because of mesothelioma's long latency (it can take upwards to 40-50 years from exposure to asbestos for symptoms to appear), these numbers are expected to rise, according to Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota's health commissioner.
Researchers have recommended that mining companies, unions, and the Iron Range community make a bigger effort in controlling known risk factors and minimizing dust exposure, in order to protect their workers. Though it seems that the mining industry and the Iron Range are here to stay, mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases should not be the eventual outcome for people who once chose mining as their career.