Can a link be made between aluminum powder administered to miners over more than three decades and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)?
Advocates are hoping a growing body of anecdotal research will demonstrate a link between aluminum and occupational disease, and force more scientific study on the subject.
In May, Timmins played host to an intake clinic designed to catalogue the experiences, job histories and illnesses of miners who have worked in Northern Ontario mines and were mandated to inhale a finely ground aluminum dust called McIntyre Powder as part of their employment.
Participants came by the dozens — from around the North, out of the province, and out of the country — and for those former miners who are now deceased, their families were there to advocate on their behalf.
The clinic was spearheaded by Janice Martell, an Elliot Lake woman who began researching the powder after her father, Jim Hobbs, a 30-year mining veteran, was denied a compensation claim by the Workers Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) after he developed Parkinson’s disease in retirement.
As word spread, the United Steelworkers (USW), the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), and the Office of the Worker Adviser (OWA) have come on board to support the initiative.
Martell felt her father, and miners like him, deserved to have a voice.
“I just think that their stories need to be heard, and at least now somebody’s looking into it and doing something, which is a lot more than what has been done in the past,” she said.
McIntyre Powder was developed by the McIntyre Research Foundation by mining executives who were looking for a way to cut down on the number of silicosis claims being filed by employees.
Between 1943 and 1979, the powder was administered to miners across Ontario and Canada, and globally, as a preventive measure against silicosis, but the practice was ultimately abandoned when its efficacy as a prophylactic was disproved.
There has been little follow-up in the years since.
Powder a condition of work
Andy LaDouceur, a representative with the United Steelworkers Union (USW) Local 2251, said former miners with whom he’s spoken feel a sense of resentment at being coerced into inhaling the powder as a condition of their job.
Many feel the companies took liberties by “experimenting” on them, LaDouceur said, and view it as a human rights violation.
It’s especially frustrating, as foundation paperwork from the time indicates the powder was to be administered by prescription only. A warning on the tins reads, “For use only under doctor’s direction.”
But the powder was commonly pumped through the ventilation system into the mine drys, where miners were instructed by supervisors to inhale deeply for a minimum of 10 minutes to ensure full exposure.
“I asked every person that’s been through here if they were prescribed aluminum powder,” LaDouceur said during the clinic. “Not one single person has, and yet they were all exposed to it, which to me demonstrates that the employers had a total disregard for that federal law that was cited on the can.”
The use of McIntyre Powder was common before the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982, however, and the timeline for filing complaints for many cases has expired, he added.
Also working against miners is a WSIB policy that automatically denies claims citing neurological conditions related to aluminum exposure, LaDouceur said.
“We’re telling them that we think that policy is not only unfair, but we don’t think it’s supported by the legislation that requires WSIB to consider every WSIB claim on its individual merit,” he said. “So, if they’re automatically denying a claim, what have they really considered?”
Lack of evidence
There have been no research studies establishing a link between aluminum and neurodegenerative diseases, but there’s nothing denying the link either, he added.
“We're trying to identify how strong a link it is and whether or not we can do it just depends on the number of people we have coming through to share their story, because there's strength in the numbers, in the cases," LaDouceur said.
Typically, researchers rely on epidemiological studies to identify links between workplaces and illnesses, noted J.P. Mrochek, a worker representative with the USW Local 6500.
If researchers were studying cancer, for example, a group of workers and their rate of cancer would be compared to the Ontario or national average.
A workplace would be identified as the cause of cancer when the incidence of disease is higher in the worker group than the national or provincial average.
In this case, because the field of study is so broad — it encompasses miners who worked at a variety of mines, which produced a variety of metals — the clinic is automatically creating a bias, Mrochek said.
But the upside is that the clinic gets firsthand, anecdotal accounts of what it was like to inhale the powder, an approach Mrochek called “very progressive, very forward-thinking.”
“Ultimately, with that, it’s an opportunity for some of these, mostly, retirees to share with us some of their experience,” he said. “We feel we’re at a point in time where, if we don’t capture that information, it’s going to be lost forever, and we really want to capture the information through the eyes of a worker.”
Former miners participating in the clinic visited a series of stations where a variety of information was gathered, including the years they worked, the mines they worked at, and what illnesses or diseases they’ve experienced.
Four doctors, occupational hygienists, nurses, and ergonomists were on hand to help assess participants and, in some cases, to provide references for follow-ups.
The process took two to three hours.
Gathering information so miners can file WSIB claims wasn’t the primary focus of the clinic, Mrochek emphasized.
But through interviews with clinic workers, some miners did find out they could be eligible for compensation they didn’t know they qualified for, like noise-induced hearing loss, which entitles them to funds to help pay for hearing aids, for example.
“(Mining is) not an easy life; it’s not an easy way of winning the bread and butter, especially in the days before health and safety legislation,” Mrochek said.
“These people were exposed to a lot of stuff and they toughed it out. There was just that culture. So when they get to tell us the stories today, they have a lot of information to share and we’ve got a lot of people here who are just so fed up.”
Dave Wilken, OHCOW’s chief operating officer, said it’s too early to draw any conclusions about potential links between McIntyre Powder and neurodegenerative disease, as it will take weeks for the organization to parse through the information gleaned from the roughly 150 participants who registered at the clinic.
A second clinic is slated to take place in Sudbury from Oct. 3 to 4, at which time volunteers will have even more information to analyze.
“At this point, it is really sort of a step back to assess the information that we’ve collected, because we’ve collected a lot more than you can analyze on the fly, just over a couple of days,” Wilken said.
The doctors will get together to discuss what they saw, and participants’ files will be reviewed to look at the exposures they had and the medical conditions they’ve been complaining of “to see if anything jumps out there,” Wilken said.
At that point, OHCOW will look to consult with medical professionals familiar with aluminum and its biochemistry.
“Then determinations will be made about whether or not there are individuals who should have individual testing of some kind, or whether or not here should be some kind of research proposal that should be put together to look at a group of workers,” Wilken said. “All that needs to be determined based on the information collected.”
Martell said whatever the outcome of the clinics, she will have achieved one of her primary goals: lessening the feeling of isolation for families who believed they were alone in struggling with these debilitating diseases.
In numbers they have found camaraderie, and the relief on participants’ faces after they completed the Timmins clinic was palpable, she said.
“It’s a real sense of kinship and family, and I think when you are in a mining community, if there’s an accident underground, if it’s one of us, it’s all of us,” Martell said.
“Because we know it could have been my dad, it could have been my brother, it could have been my son or my daughter.”