Although he died of cancer in 2013 before he could complete his life’s work, researcher Phillip Cook will have an impact on the evaluation of asbestos-like mineral fibers and how they affect the body. Shortly after the scientist, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for much of his career, passed away, his colleague decided the research must be completed. The results create a way to evaluate which fibrous minerals are more or less toxic.
Cook became interested in the toxicity of fibrous minerals in the late 1960s, when he worked at an EPA lab in Duluth, Minn. The lab was tasked with examining the water in Lake Superior that served as the water supply for towns along the North Shore. He discovered microscopic fibers similar to those found in asbestos. Eventually, the mineral fibers were tracked back to Silver Bay, the location of a taconite mine operated by Reserve Mining Company.
Taconite has been suspected of causing mesothelioma because of its tiny fibers that, like asbestos, may be inhaled or ingested. Numerous studies have revealed increased incidences of mesothelioma in taconite mine workers on the Iron Ranges of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Cook became suspicious that other minerals could have fibers that may cause similar health effects, and that the fibers do not necessarily have to be airborne to be hazardous. Current asbestos-testing methods look primarily for long, thin fibers. Cook suspected other types of fibers – short, dense – could also be toxic. He also developed a theory that total surface area was more important to a fibrous mineral’s toxicity than fiber size or shape.
Although he was eventually reassigned at the EPA to cover other environmental health issues, Cook never abandoned his mineral fiber studies. He amassed reams of materials and slides at his home. He drew on these resources in 1999, when he was again called to study asbestos, this time at Libby, Mont., the town famously decimated by asbestos particles from a vermiculite mine. Cook was intrigued by the opportunity to study vermiculite much as he had studied taconite in the 1960s and ‘70s.
After Cook’s death in 2013, his colleague at the EPA, Dr. Dale Hoff, the current interim director of the agency, knew the work could not be allowed to languish. Taking the massive amount of materials left behind, he was able to use Cook’s formulas and apply them to mineral samples to demonstrate which are more toxic or less toxic.
Cook’s work was presented at a conference in Duluth at the beginning of October. Titled “Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers in the Upper Midwest: Implications for Mining and Health Workshop,” the conference earned the honorary title of “Cook Conference” in honor of the tireless researcher. It is possible his work will leave a legacy of safer job sites for miners and other industrial workers, better protections for workers and the public, and a broader understanding of the impact of fibrous minerals on the human body.
Source: Minnesota Post