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Continued: June 17, 2007: State kept quiet on cancer in 35 miners

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 17, 2007 - 8:44 AM

For years, the Health Department has regularly released public-health research. Officials could not cite another case in which findings were withheld for a year.

New study released quickly

Just this month, the department quickly released another study based on the same cancer-tracking registry used in the Iron Range research. That study found no cancer clusters in Washington and Dakota counties, where groundwater pollution is a growing concern. The findings were made public shortly after the work was done.

State Rep. Denny McNamara serves on a committee that reviewed the Iron Range findings in April. He said he didn't know the release of the mesothelioma research had been delayed a year until a reporter called him. He said the Legislature should have been told earlier.

"I know in the Dakota County one, we pushed for that in a very expedited manner," said McNamara, R-Hastings. "I wouldn't want them to do anything different in the same situation, no matter what geographic area."

Fear of information leaks

Internal documents show that the Health Department drafted a news release in June 2006 about the 35 additional cases of mesothelioma, but planned to release it only if word of the findings leaked out.

The documents reveal that department officials were so concerned about a possible leak that they excluded two prominent University of Minnesota researchers from scientific consultation because they had been critical of the Health Department in the past.

The two scientists are Greaves, the lung-disease expert, and Prof. William Toscano, head of the division of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health. In interviews, the scientists said they had never leaked anything. They expressed fresh criticism of the department's actions.

"People need to know this," Toscano said of the mine- disease findings. "I can't imagine people not wanting to know this information."

That's also the view of the United Steelworkers, which represents many miners. "It is a basic right to know what the government knows about exposures and problems that can affect your health," said Mike Wright, the union's director of health, safety and environment.

State officials also withheld the findings from the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration, which last year was considering stricter limits on asbestos dust in mines. The rule revision languished after a West Virginia mine explosion last year refocused the agency's efforts toward coal-mine safety.

The federal safety group declined to comment on the Health Department's action, but said the agency welcomes the opportunity to review new research "that may assist us in our efforts to draft
a more comprehensive asbestos regulation."

Federal regulators have repeatedly detected elevated asbestos since 2003 in the Northshore Mining Co. plant in Silver Bay, Minn.

In January, the company talked with state officials about a new miner health study, which the company would pay for. Yet no one told company officials about the additional mesothelioma cases even then, said Dana Byrne, vice president-public affairs for Northshore's parent company, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.

The Northshore study is in addition to the state's plan to study dust exposure in Iron Range miners who developed mesothelioma and those who didn't. In another state study, researchers plan to compare cancer risks of different types of mineral fibers based on animal testing. The department hopes to pay for the research out of existing budgets and by seeking a federal grant.

Plans for both studies were prominently noted in the Health Department's March announcement. The 35 new cancer cases were mentioned - but not until the fifth paragraph.

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