Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Symposium on Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers

Environmental & Science Education, Water & Watersheds, Sustainability, History of Science

by Edward Hessler

By Donald Emmerich, Photographer (NARA record: 3045077)
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Reserve Mining Case & Lake Superior
Names and terms such as Reserve Mining Company, Silver Bay, Judge Miles Lord, taconite, and mineral fibers, may remind you of the Reserve Mining Case.

For years the Reserve Mining Company had dumped waste rock and water from its taconite facility in Silver Bay into Lake Superior.  In the late 1960s, elongated mineral fragments were traced from Duluth's drinking water to Silver Bay, the location of the taconite processing plant. These fragments bore an uncanny similarity to asbestos fibers, long known to be harmful to humans.

Bottled drinking water replaced the fresh, untreated pure water of Lake Superior as drinking water in communities that had relied on it. It led Duluth to construct a filtration plant which is still in use.  A very bitter, heated and bumpy court case was initiated in August 1973 which wasn't resolved until 1980, when the waste rock and water from Reserve Mining's taconite plant was pumped several miles inland where it was deposited in a disposal pond, a method that is still in use today.

This case is a landmark in the relationship between humans and the environment. Natural resources could be protected from industrial pollution.

Conference on Dr. Philip Cook's research on Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers
A technical conference, "Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers in the Upper Midwest: Implications for Mining and Health Workshop," started yesterday in Duluth.  This conference is referred to by insiders as the Cook conference.

Dr. Philip Cook was a chemist who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Duluth when these fibers were discovered.  He wondered whether they were really asbestos?  Were they harmful to humans?  Did they cause a rare cancer, mesothelioma, the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases which destroys the lubricating functioning of the lining of the lung? 
Respiratory effects of exposure to dust in taconite miners and processing workers includes concern about mesothelioma.

Work on these fibers was the focus of Dr. Cook's research since then and this conference will report on his results (Cook died of cancer in 2013).  One of the most interesting findings from his research is his discovery of small fibers in rats' lungs into which standard length fibers has been introduced.  These would break-off from the longer fibers.

Stephanie Hemphill, a reporter who has followed this environmental and health issue for a long time wrote a lovely piece for MinnPost on this conference.  It previews the conference, pulls some of the science together and describes the painstaking and brilliant research done by Philip Cook.

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