When people think of Minnesota, taconite mines probably are not the first things that come to their minds. Nevertheless, taconite mining is big business in Minnesota, employing thousands of miners and ancillary workers. The dark side of this is that our taconite miners have a high risk of developing mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer. So said a 2014 study that the University of Minnesota School of Public Health conducted. At the time, they assumed the asbestos in taconite was what was causing the cancer.
A subsequent study, however, found that taconite’s non-asbestiform elongate mineral particles are not the culprits after all. This leaves researchers at a loss as to what is causing taconite miners to develop mesothelioma at an increasingly higher rate.
Asbestos and its break-down
It is well known that taconite contains asbestos, and it likewise is well known that exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma. FindLaw explains that mesothelioma is a cancer that develops when the asbestos fibers inhaled or ingested by workers build up in the linings of their lungs, abdomen and/or heart.
Unlike other minerals, asbestos breaks down in a much different way when it ages or is disturbed. Instead of becoming simple dust, asbestos decomposes into microscopic fibers. These fibers become airborne in the slightest breeze, whether a natural one or one caused by indoor air conditioning and/or fans. Workers unknowingly breathe in these fibers and the damage begins.
Asbestos fibers also fall on food and other things, such as cigarettes, that workers put into their mouths. In addition, they attach themselves to workers’ clothing and shoes, becoming airborne once again in workers’ homes due to changing clothes, laundering, etc. Thus a worker’s family also is at risk for inhaling these insidious fibers.
Lack of miner safety standards
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has asbestos safety standards in place for shipbuilders and construction workers, but none exist for miners. To make matters worse, mesothelioma often takes decades to develop and diagnose. From the time of initial asbestos exposure, a worker may not develop mesothelioma symptoms for 20-50 years. This is why the vast majority of mesothelioma lawsuits are brought by retired miners and other workers who are now in their 60s, 70s or even 80s.