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Smelting may be responsible for cancer in some Montana workers


Southwest Montana may have a historical legacy of smelting but, according to researchers, smelt work proved fatal for some Montana workers. Smelting involves the processing of copper ore. However, such work negatively affected the health of many who performed it.

This news comes from the work of two researchers who came to Montana five decades ago to research copper smelters at an Anaconda smelting facility. The landmark study showed a connection between cancer of the respiratory system and inorganic arsenic airborne particles. The study examined company records reaching as far back as the 1930s, and also mortality data. Eight thousand people were examined in the study. The study concluded that there was a distinct connection between workers who died of lung cancer and respiratory cancers and being exposed to heavy amounts of arsenic at the smelting facility where they worked.

The areas of the facility with the most levels of arsenic were, for the most part, no longer operational as of the 1950s. However, subsequent studies performed in later decades showed that there was still a risk of respiratory cancers within a range that a worker was exposed to arsenic. By the 1990s, as many as 70 percent of the workers studied had passed away, often due to respiratory or lung cancer. The smelter shut its doors 37 years ago.

Other studies have since been performed with regards to the health of smelters. For example, a 2015 study reported that smelters who came into heavy contact with arsenic had an increased chance of dying from heart issues.

Former smelters recall that they had to don charcoal masks to do their work. Prior to the implementation of the masks, smoke produced during smelting would be so onerous that it would even bother the livestock in the surrounding area. According to one herder, the dust covered the grass and would be inhaled. He describes it as "choking" and "bitter."

Workers exposed to toxic elements while on the job can become very sick. When a worker cannot work due to an illness contracted at work, that worker may want to research whether they are eligible for workers' compensation benefits. These benefits are often the financial lifeline needed to help workers who are too ill to work pay for their costs of living and medical care. In some cases, death benefits may be available as well.

Source: Montana Standard, "Research on smelter workers shows the work was deadly for some," Susan Dunlap, May 7, 2017

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