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McIntyre Powder Project seeks justice for exposed miners

Janice Martell posing with her father Jim Hobbs
A new project hopes to raise awareness and support for miners who were exposed to McIntyre Powder and who may now suffer a work-related neurological disorder.

The McIntyre Powder Project is a labour of love for Janice Martell. Her father, Jim Hobbs, a retired Elliot Lake miner, suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a condition Martell believes is associated with his workplace exposure to aluminum dust. (Janice and Jim are pictured left.)

A failed experiment

From 1943 until about 1979, Ontario miners were routinely treated with inhalable aluminum dust, also known as McIntyre Powder, named after McIntyre Porcupine Mines Ltd., which patented the therapy. Miners received these government-sanctioned, employer-mandated treatments in change rooms (“dryes”) or in special air-tight chambers as a protective measure against silica-related disease. The treatment was widely used where silica exposure was common especially in mines and in ceramic and brick factories.

Having researched McIntyre Powder’s use and after speaking with miners, Martell says, “The practice seems to have been based on questionable science. Despite being a medical treatment, workers were never informed of the benefits or risks,” she says. “They were told the treatment would protect them and they should breathe deeply.”

More harm than good

The use of McIntyre Powder in Ontario mines continued until 1979 although its ability to prevent silicosis was long questioned. After their own evaluation the British Medical Research Council recommended in 1956 against the use of aluminum powder in the treatment and prevention of silicosis.

For many years research evidence has studied the possible link between environmental and occupational exposures to aluminum and neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A 1990 study of Ontario gold miners found greater cognitive impairment in those exposed to McIntyre Powder especially those exposed for a longer duration. A 1992 Interim Report to the Workers' Compensation Board by then-Industrial Disease Standards Panel on Aluminum concluded the evidence was preliminary but called for further research. Since 1993 Ontario’s Workplace Safety & Insurance Board has applied a policy which excludes dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological effects as occupational diseases resulting from occupational aluminum exposure. They further cite a lack of medical and scientific evidence to support such claims.

Reaching affected workers

Occupational disease symptoms may not develop until decades after exposure and because McIntyre Powder is no longer used in Ontario mines, Martell worries that exposed miners are suffering in silence, the link to their workplace exposures lost forever. Along with neurologic effects, she has spoken with miners who went on to develop silicosis despite the preventive claims of McIntyre Powder.

Martell, who coordinates the project on personal time, visits other mining communities and engages as many workers as she can. “When I speak one-on-one with former miners, or their survivors, they really open up about their experience,” she says. Wanting to reach many more, she set up a Facebook page to raise awareness and to serve as a voluntary worker registry. A website is in the works too. Ultimately, Martell says, “We need new research into the long-term consequences of these work exposures. This may help bring long overdue legislative and policy change.”

Sylvia Boyce, safety, health and environment coordinator for United Steelworkers District 6 says, USW fully supports Martell’s efforts. “Projects like these led by affected families have the potential to reach our members in a very personal and powerful way. The McIntyre Powder Project offers important support to our members and other workers who may suffer a work-related illness but never linked it to a possible workplace exposure. Gathering this collective experience is also critical in support of compensation claims for affected workers,” adds Boyce.

To learn more about the McIntyre Powder Project or to share your own experience:

Other related resources:
Effect of exposure of miners to aluminium powder
Link between Aluminum and the Pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Long-term effects of aluminium dust inhalation
WHSC offers a wide range of training programs and resources to help workplace parties understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards including the prevention of toxic exposures. Many of these resources also offer essential insight into the information and tools needed to eliminate or reduce harmful workplace and environmental exposures.
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