Another state is investigating the possible link between minerals mining and mesothelioma. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is trying to determine if asbestos-like fibers could be released from iron ore mining or sampling in the Penokee Range. It involves a naturally occurring mineral called grunerite. Grunerite can appear in a fibrous crystal form.
Fibrous minerals are being studied for a possible link to mesothelioma risk. Traditionally, mesothelioma has been linked to asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was used extensively for years in industry and building as a fire retardant. When broken up, microscopic asbestos fibers can be inhaled and lodge in the body creating cancerous tumors. Mesothelioma most often affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen and can also rarely affect the lining of the heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma.
The Iron Range is already the subject of a five-year, $4.9-million study of its taconite mining, after reports indicated an unusually high number of cases of mesothelioma among its taconite miners. The Taconite Workers Health Study is being directed by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in partnership with the Medical School and the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Preliminary results of the Minnesota study were mixed. Researchers confirmed that for every year a taconite miner spent in the industry, his or her risk of mesothelioma increased by 3 percent. But researchers did not find traditional asbestos-sized mineral fibers in taconite samples, and they still can’t be sure the elongated mineral particles (EMP) present in the samples were the cause of mesothelioma. So the link is there, but researchers are still baffled by exactly “how” and “why.”
Gogebic Taconite is the company that has proposed a grunerite mining site near Mellen, Wis., in the Penokee Range where the mineral can be found naturally. DNR hydrogeologist Larry Lynch said Gogebic Taconite has proposed steps he feels will make the grunerite mining safe for small-scale bulk-sampling work. Grunerite does not always appear in the fibrous crystal form, which means it would not always take the shape of asbestos fibers and therefor would not pose a mesothelioma risk.
However, he says more studies will need to be conducted to determine if a full-scale mining operation would be safe. “Certainly with a full-scale mining operation you move much more material (and) there’s much greater particulate emissions,” Lynch told the Duluth News Tribune. Measures would need to be in place to control the release of the fibers, he says, to prevent them from becoming airborne or entering water.