In the Toronto Star’s five-part investigative series “The Uncounted”, reporter Greg Mercer documents how and why official statistics, in capturing only accepted disease claims from provincial compensation boards, count what many epidemiologists say is just a fraction of suspected occupational disease cases that affect Canadians. Unlike other countries, Canada has no mandatory reporting or national registries to track those cases and ensure prompt identification of disease clusters. So it is often left to advocacy groups, unions and academics to document these clusters.
One such example is the McIntyre Powder Project, a campaign spearheaded by Janice Martell (daughter of northern Ontario miner Jim Hobbs) who over the past five years has demanded answers through research on the health effects of workplace toxic exposure to the aluminum dust and a change in how the workers’ compensation system handles claims for those made ill and their families.
In addition to research being conducted for the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), a study led by Dr Paul Demers of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) recently published its findings on the neurological disease risk among Ontario miners exposed to McIntyre Powder. Begun in 1943, the compulsory spraying of the dust to coat miners’ lungs before each shift as a protection against silicosis continued until 1979/80 when, after pushback from unions and media coverage, a Ministry of Labour investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence of its effectiveness. The new study, commissioned by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), follows an earlier Intrinsik review for the Board of the scientific literature on adverse chronic health risks from MP exposure reported inconclusive findings [see critique of this review].
What the report found
The OCRC study reports a statistically significant increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, particularly among workers exposed in gold mining, but no association for McIntyre Powder exposure and Alzheimer’s disease or motor neuron disease although “an overall increased risk in miners compared to the general population was observed.” The study was based on the WSIB’s Mining Master File which includes work history and exposure to the powder, and on other historical records and health databases. In all, the study looked at 37,000 miners, including at least 9,500 who had been exposed to MP. Limitations in available health data sources prevented a large proportion of miners, including almost 2/3rd of miners historically exposed to MP, from being included in their analysis, and follow-up was limited to years after 1992 only. They point out also that because of long latency some cases of neurological diseases among MP-exposed workers may have not yet developed, especially among the uranium mine workers who were exposed more recently.
More still to be done
In an interview with CTV News Sudbury Janice Martell welcomed the findings but said more research on other potential effects needs to be done.
This study looked at neurological disorders only … I’ve got guys on my registry with high rates of respiratory conditions — cancers, cardiovascular, some auto-immune things, sarcoidosis and things like that — and this same study needs to happen in the same way to link the data to see if there’s higher rates of miners and in McIntyre miners.
In its McIntyre Powder Update, the WSIB states it is moving forward as quickly as possible to review claims based on the relevant findings of the study and invites those with questions about a claim (existing or new) to call 1-800-387-0750. However, despite agreeing with the Demers report that there is an association between McIntyre Powder and Parkinson’s disease, the Board continues to adjudicate these occupational disease claims on a case-by-case basis. Given the findings, advocates raise the need for the Ontario government to use its powers to create a rebuttable presumption to ensure timely, fair compensation for exposed miners.
- Demers, Paul. 2020 Mar. 12. Investigation of Mcintyre Powder Exposure and Neurological Outcomes in the Mining Master File Cohort: Final Report. Occupational Cancer Research Centre, Ontario Health (Cancer Care Ontario)
- Mercer, Greg. 2020 May 8. “The Uncounted: occupational disease is killing Canadians” [Project series] Toronto Star & The Record
- CBC News Sudbury. 2020 May 7. “WSIB study finds link between use of McIntyre Powder in Ontario mines and risk of Parkinson’s”
- Kelly, Lindsay. 2019 Oct. 2. “Researchers delve deep into the fine details of McIntyre Powder.” Northern Ontario Business
- Martell, Janice. 2019 Dec. 31. Open letter to the WSIB. (Youtube video)
- Silliker, Amanda. 2018 Apr. 16. “Is McIntyre Powder to blame for neurological diseases in miners?” Canadian Occupational Safety
- McIntyre Powder Project: Facebook