Last week saw some good steps forward in the fight for justice for the Ontario miners – some 10,000 between 1943 to 1979/80 – who, at the start of their shifts, were required to inhale the aluminum dust known as McIntyre Powder as an antidote to silicosis. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) scrapped its Occupational Aluminum Exposure policy (Policy 16-01-10), introduced 1998 and made retroactive to 1993, which automatically denied compensation claims of workers exposed to aluminum for adverse neurological effects. The announcement was accompanied by the release of findings from a new study, commissioned by the Board in 2016, to look at the existing science.
Intrinsik study reports findings across the literature “inconsistent”
The study (see plain language summary and full report) reviewed 62 epidemiological studies on health effects associated with occupational exposure to aluminum published between 1985-2016. Of these, only three specifically looked at McIntyre Powder, two of which found no increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. While the third did show a positive association between McIntyre Powder exposure and decreased performance on cognitive tests of nervous system performance, there were no increases in diagnosed neurological diseases. The study also included a statistical analysis of findings from studies of aluminum exposure in other industries, although the authors noted that accumulated aluminum exposure may have been higher for workers exposed to McIntyre Powder than those in other occupations.
Overall, the study showed that the question of health risks from aluminum exposure in the workplace is complex, with findings across the existing literature inconsistent and results from analyses difficult to interpret because workplace settings and research methods (including the collection of exposure data) varied across studies. The authors conclude that while findings cannot conclusively state whether or not there is a causal relationship between exposure to aluminum in the workplace and increased risks of adverse chronic health effects, the scientific evidence considered in total has not supported a link.
WSIB commissions a further study
Finding that questions remain, related specifically to the development of neurological conditions resulting from exposure to McIntyre Powder, the Board has commissioned a new independent study to be conducted by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC). The study on increased risks will use the now digitized historical records included in the Mining Master File (MMF) which has information on over 90,000 workers in the Ontario mining industry and link them to provincial health records. (The MM record system system was dropped in 1987, the year a Ministry of Labour study identified possible problems with aluminum dust). With the OCRC study not due to report until late 2019, the WSIB has announced it will contact workers with pending registered claims (currently 57) , with an option of interim decisions on a case-by-case basis, based on the findings of the Intrinsik review and other available evidence.
McIntyre Powder Project response: “a right to know”
Interviewed for CBC Sudbury’s Morning North Aug. 18, the Project’s Janice Martell acknowledged that WSIB’s removal of the longstanding policy barrier was a major positive change. While applauding the forthcoming OCRC study, she noted it was limited to neurological conditions. Documentation of miners’ health issues gathered from the Project’s Voluntary Register and intake clinics organized jointly by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), Office of the Worker Adviser, United Steelworkers and the McIntyre Powder Project, has identified significant numbers of other adverse effects covering respiratory diseases and cancers. There has been no response yet for funding requests for OHCOW to continue its research.
Other initiatives, including a McMaster study to measure aluminum content in the body, are underway. As the daughter of an underground rock miner, the late Jim Hobbs, who was daily exposed to McIntyre powder and subsequently afflicted with Parkinson’s, Janice draws attention not only to miners’ and their families’ right to answers and to compensation, but also to issues surrounding acceptable long-term and home care for those suffering with chronic occupational disease.
- Ferguson, Glenn et al. 2017 Apr. 28. Systematic Review of Occupational Aluminum Exposure and Adverse Health Conditions. Mississauga: Intrinsik Corp.
- Stefanovich, Olivia. 2017 Aug. 17. ” ‘Miners are dying’: WSIB to Examine McIntyre Powder Exposure in New Study.” CBC News Sudbury (with audio)
- Mojtehedzadeh, Sara. 2017 Aug. 17. “Help on the Way for Ailing Miners Exposed to ‘Miracle’ Dust.” Toronto Star
- 2017 Aug. 18. “WSIB Explores Powder Given to Miners.” Sudbury Star
- Lak, Daniel. 2017 Aug. 9. New Evidence May Link Aluminum Dust and Brain Damage Among Miners. Al Jazeera (video)