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Studies explore possible taconite-mesothelioma link

April 18th, 2007

Reports of more than 50 recent mesothelioma cases among mining workers in Minnesota have prompted the state legislature to call for new investigations into the link between mesothelioma and on-the-job exposure to hazardous materials. Two studies proposed by the Minnesota House of Representatives would examine whether exposure to taconite dust could lead to a mesothelioma diagnosis in mining workers.

Taconite is an extremely hard mineral which is about 25% iron. After it is mined, taconite is crushed into a fine powder and magnets are used to extract the iron from taconite dust. After this iron is rolled into pellets and hardened, it can be used to make steel.

Although exposure to asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma, some scientists are beginning to suspect that taconite dust—which contains fibers that are similar to asbestos—may also cause the disease. Minnesota legislators say that because the 52 new mesothelioma cases cannot be fully explained by asbestos exposure, researchers need to study the possibility that taconite is responsible for the disease.

In the first of the proposed studies, researchers would compare rates of asbestos and taconite exposure in the 52 new mesothelioma cases to a control group to determine whether taconite could be blamed for their mesothelioma symptoms. The second study would examine the effects of taconite exposure on lab animals to determine what its effect would be on humans.

Since the 1980s, Minnesota has made several attempts to launch studies into mesothelioma deaths among its mining workers, but all were halted due to a lack of funds. Officials have criticized the eastern mining companies who operate in Minnesota for not contributing to these studies, saying that they have a duty to their workers to foster a better understanding of the risks of taconite and asbestos exposure.

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