Spin has apparently come to the reporting of deadly health conditions in Minnesota.
When Minnesota Department of Health researchers discovered more than a year ago that 35 miners in the state’s taconite industry died from a deadly form of cancer, Health Commissioner Diane Mandernach halted release of the information for a year, saying the department needed to do more studies and get her agency’s “ducks in a row.”
The deadly form of lung cancer, mesothelioma, comes from exposure to asbestos and the department had previously documented 17 deaths among miners. So when it found that 35 more miners had died of the disease, researchers prepared to release the information.
Mandernach halted it, according to health department documents obtained by the Star Tribune. Documents showed Mandernach stifled the report because it might create controversy. Mandernach, interviewed by the Star Tribune, said releasing the findings without further studies could “excite and cause tremendous concern before you have all of your ducks in a row.”
Workers are dying of a deadly disease, and we have a senior government official opting for spin.
It’s unconscionable and shows how far Mandernach is out of touch with her role and the role of her agency. She shirked her duty to information the public of serious health hazards.
The findings have raised concerns among medical professionals that the environmentally caused cancer may be much more prevalent than first thought and they’ve criticized the health department’s withholding the information.
Said Dr. Ian Greaves, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota who is an expert in lung diseases: “Whether or not they had a plan in place is neither here nor there.
“They’re a public agency that serves the public, and I think it's overreaching to think they should take an attitude that they know best. ... This sounds very paternalistic in some ways.”
Health department researchers who worked on the project also urged Mandernach to release it.
The silence is significant in two key ways. It keeps in the dark those miners who might be at risk for the disease. While many of the state’s 4,000 taconite miners may have considered screenings, many others probably didn’t. A report that shows there are now three times as many deaths as first thought, might prompt miners to get lung x-rays.
Mesothelioma moves very quickly as a cancer and patients often die months after being diagnosed. Early detection is key.
Other memos in the health department suggested the findings would put pressure on the government to do something about workplace safety and exposure to the asbestos. That sounds like a bureaucrat protecting monied interests and not those of the public.
Clearly, Mandernach was more concerned with public relations than the public health and safety.