Say it aloud in 2017 and it sounds crazy: protect mine workers from life-threatening silicosis by putting them in closed rooms and forcing them to inhale finely ground aluminum powder.
But in the 1940s, coping with skyrocketing workers’ compensation costs for silicosis, Ontario mining companies did just that. And they kept doing it for four decades until production of the powder ended in 1980.
Now there is growing evidence of a link between exposure to the aluminum dust—called McIntyre Powder—and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. So Ontario’s government is investing $800,000 (C$1 million) to help determine if those affected should be compensated—an amount it believes will help make progress but which the United Steelworkers says won’t be enough.
The practice started at a gold mine operated by McIntyre Porcupine Mines Ltd. near the northern Ontario community of Timmins, but spread through licensing to 45 mining companies in Ontario, as well as others across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Mexico, and Chile. The ministry estimates 10,000 workers ultimately were exposed in Ontario.
Most U.S. companies were foundries, refractories, and porcelain manufacturers, and among them were General Electric Co., Borg-Warner Corp., National Cash Register Co., Westinghouse Electric Corp., and Kohler Co.
Janice Martell’s father, Jim Hobbs, was one of the miners exposed in Ontario. Her personal crusade since 2015 led to the Ontario government’s Oct. 11 announcement it would support ongoing research by the publicly funded Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. (OHCOW).
The funding is 50 percent of the originally requested amount, but is “critically important” in making progress, Martell, an occupational health coordinator with OHCOW, said Oct. 12.
“I wish my dad was alive to see it,” Martell told Bloomberg Environment. Her father passed away earlier this year from Parkinson’s, which Martell believes was due to exposure to the aluminum dust.
The agency is reviewing about 350 active files on Ontario mine workers who were exposed, while another 90 workers have asked to be added to the list, she said. To date, 31 Ontario workers exposed to the dust have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she said.
Aluminum Dust Clearly Implicated
It’s “crystal clear” that exposure to aluminum dust is implicated in harm to miners, Dave Wilken, OHCOW’s chief operating officer, told Bloomberg Environment.
“What was done in introducing this was horrendous,” Wilken said. “You could never come within a million miles of doing this today.”
There was pressure on Ontario mining companies to limit the financial impact on the workers’ compensation system of thousands of workers who contracted silicosis in the workplace, he said. There was similar pressure in the U.S., especially after the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster where more than 476 workers died of silicosis while drilling a tunnel in West Virginia, he said.
The government funding won’t be enough to do detailed work on all of the agency’s 400-plus files, Wilken said, but should provide enough data for Ontario’s workers’ compensation agency to decide whether surviving miners or survivors of those who have passed away should receive benefits.
The United Steelworkers welcomed the government funding, but said it isn’t enough and won’t help workers whose compensation claims already have been denied.
“These miners are dying. They and their families need more than assessments,” Marty Warren, the union’s director for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, said in a statement. “These workers were human guinea pigs.”
Researcher Sees Link to Diseases
Chris Exley, a professor of bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University in England who specializes in aluminum toxicology, said that although aluminum is the third most abundant substance on Earth, the massive benefits it provides humanity have come “without any concern for human health.”
Extensive environmental and health studies routinely performed on other substances have never been used on aluminum or products made with it, Exley told Bloomberg Environment. Aluminum isn’t acutely toxic, but accumulation in the body is linked to diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, he said.
Detailed study of exposed miners or tissue from those who died would be conclusive, he said. “There’s no question we would find a link to aluminum.”
Wilken agreed, saying that there was minimal testing of McIntyre Powder before its use and no follow-up testing, and no one was able to reproduce the claimed positive effects. Even the limited positive results likely were overstated because of other developments in the mining sector, such as better ventilation and the use of wet drilling to limit silica dust, he said.
Funding Complements Safety Review
The research funding is in addition to other provincial initiatives, including a comprehensive mining safety review, Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said Oct. 11. “It is critical that occupational diseases be treated with the same seriousness and importance as physical injuries.”
The government will closely monitor the research to see if further steps are needed, Ministry of Labour spokeswoman Janet Deline told Bloomberg Environment. Decisions on medical support or workers’ compensation benefits rest with the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, she said.
The provincial ministry estimates about 10,000 mine workers were exposed to McIntyre Powder between 1943 and 1980, but the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto says the number is at least 27,500.
The Mining Association of Ontario, an industry group, didn’t respond to a request from Bloomberg Environment for comment on the issue of McIntyre Powder use by its member companies.
Ontario mining companies with licenses to use McIntyre Powder included Denison Mines Ltd., Dome Mines Ltd., Kirkland Lake Gold Mining Company Ltd., Noranda Mines Ltd., Rio Algom Mines Ltd., and Teck-Hughes Gold Mines Ltd. Other Canadian companies licensed to use the process included Cominco Ltd. (now Teck Cominco Metals Ltd.) and Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd.