By Matt Corbeil
Elliot Lake is a city with a history.
Home to one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium, the city grew in tandem with the US military’s nuclear weapons stockpile. But if the purpose of the stockpile was to keep the “free world” safe from the threat of global communism, little thought was given to the safety of the people who worked in the mines.
Radiation and silica took an enormous toll on Elliot Lake’s working people. Lung cancer and silicosis were the fate of far too many. By 1975 almost 9 per cent of the local workforce suffered from some degree of respiratory impairment. The brutal working conditions spurred one of Canada’s most important wildcat strikes – the 1974 walkout at Dension Mines – which eventually transformed Ontario’s occupational health and safety codes.
Now, some twenty years after the last mine has closed, the city is once again at the centre of a campaign for worker health and safety.
Janice Martell, whose father Jim Hobbs worked underground for Rio Algom, has spearheaded the McIntyre Powder Project. Her goal is to assess the neurological effects of one of the mining industry’s most controversial – though little known – health and safety measures: aluminum powder prophylaxis.
Hailed as an indispensable tool in the battle against silicosis, between 1943 and 1979 thousands of mineworkers across Canada – and around the world – were forced to inhale McIntyre aluminum powder as a condition of employment. Before each shift sealed change rooms were filled with the black powder, which workers then were encouraged to breathe in as deep as they could.
But nothing was known of the long-term effects of repeated exposure to aluminum powder. Even as more and more mining companies purchased the licensing agreement to use the powder at their worksites, the McIntyre Foundation never once subjected its product to controlled testing. Mineworkers were the unwilling guinea pigs in an awful experiment.
I recently spoke with Janice Martell about her work with the McIntyre Project.
What was the inspiration of your campaign? How did you first hear about McIntyre Powder?
My father, Jim Hobbs, was one of the thousands of mine workers who had to inhale McIntyre Powder (aluminum dust) as a condition of his employment when he worked at Rio Algom Quirke 2 Mine in Elliot Lake in the late 1970s. He worked as an underground hard rock miner, and his aluminum dust exposure was a daily occurrence before every shift.
Ten years after the mines in Elliot Lake shut down, he began experiencing neurological symptoms – tremors, balance issues – and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At the time, I didn’t know anything about McIntyre Powder because my dad never spoke about it. In hindsight, I remember him blowing out or spitting up black, and I also remember his lunch kit being covered in a fine gritty film that smelled very distinct – like an oily metallic smell. Five years ago, someone mentioned to my mother that my dad should apply for workplace compensation benefits for his Parkinson’s because of the aluminum dust, and when I asked my dad about it, that’s the first time that I heard the term “McIntyre Powder.”
In 2011, I became my dad’s Worker Representative on a Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claim for his Parkinson’s, related to his occupational exposure to the aluminum dust. His claim was rejected on the basis that there is a lack of scientific evidence linking the aluminum (which is a neurotoxin) and Parkinson’s (which is a neurological disorder). The WSIB in Ontario has one (and only one) ‘negative policy’, which states that neurological disorders are not occupational diseases when claimed to be as a result of occupational aluminum exposure. So essentially, the WSIB can ‘rubber stamp’ deny claims for neurological disorders related to aluminum exposure, without fully investigating the long-term health impacts of the McIntyre Powder aluminum prophylaxis program on the workers forced to inhale aluminum dust.
This seemed wholly unjust to me, and so I created the McIntyre Powder Project.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been able to achieve thus far? What are your plans moving forward in the next while?
Initially, I researched the aluminum dust issue, including reviewing scientific literature and the archival records of the McIntyre Research Foundation (a group comprised almost exclusively of mining executives and industry doctors), the Ontario Mining Association, and involved government bodies.
Next, I created a voluntary registry as a centralized place to document the work histories and health issues of workers who were exposed to McIntyre Powder. I invited affected workers or their survivors to voluntarily provide basic information about their work exposures and health issues, in the hopes that by doing so as a group, we would begin to see trends in health issues and stimulate further research in this area. I went public with my Project in April of 2015 with one name on my voluntary registry – Jim Hobbs. In the 18 months since that time, over 300 names have been added to the voluntary registry, two-thirds of whom have respiratory/lung issues, and almost one-third of whom have neurological problems, including Alzheimer’s/dementia, short-term memory problems, Parkinson’s and ALS.
A large focus of the McIntyre Powder Project is to raise awareness of the McIntyre Powder aluminum prophylaxis program. I host public information events about the work of the Project and my research findings, speak with groups and the media about the history of the McIntyre Powder program, and also provide information through my website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page.
As the Project has grown and more and more people have become aware of the history and injustice of the aluminum dust program, the issues have moved beyond one layperson challenging the system. Members of the labour movement, occupational health organizations, historians, scientists, and researchers are showing tangible interest and support for the primary goal of the Project: seeking answers about the long-term health effects of the aluminum dust on the workers exposed to it. Intake Clinics organized by the United Steelworkers were held in Timmins, Ontario in May 2016 and will be offered again on October 3 & 4, 2016 in Sudbury, Ontario for affected mine workers and their survivors. The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) is developing a database of the health and exposure information of the affected mine workers gathered from these Intake Clinics, for purposes of further research.
What are some of your immediate goals? What would a successful resolution to this campaign look like?
I plan to continue to raise awareness about the issues involved, expanding the reach to national and international areas where the aluminum dust was used. I hope to attend the Keele Meeting on Aluminum in March 2017 in Vancouver, B.C. to present a summary of the stories and data gathered thus far to scientific researchers.
I am highly interested in working with a documentary filmmaker to capture the stories of the remaining mine workers who were exposed to the aluminum dust, so that they will not die in silence. I have been listening to those stories for two years and am gutted by them. What happened to these workers in the absence of their informed consent and without accountability on the part of the decision-makers involved speaks to who WE are as humans and what values we hold. We need to document this before we lose the last of their voices.
My Project work will end when the stories of the workers and families involved are documented, whatever answers can be found are found about the long-term health impacts of aluminum dust on the affected workers, and the systems, attitudes, and priorities that failed to ensure the health and safety of these workers are exposed and overhauled.
What kind of response have you had from former mineworkers? Is there much interest in participating in the project?
The response has been overwhelming! Apart from the 300+ exposed workers with health issues who have added their names to the Project’s voluntary registry, many others have contacted me to provide their names and work histories in case of future health issues. Many have shared experiences of dismissive treatment by the WSIB and/or health care systems. All express gratitude and support for the work of the McIntyre Powder Project in giving a voice and validation to their life stories. Their story is my father’s story.
One of the activities that I enjoy the most is speaking with workers about their experiences and learning more about life underground. It provides me with a deep appreciation for what my father must have gone through to provide for us and to put us through school. I have also gained a profound sense of connection, kinship, and solidarity with mining families worldwide.
What is your relationship like with health and safety officials here in Ontario? Have you heard anything from mining companies?
That is an interesting question, and I suppose that the answer might be more fluid than solid depending on the circle one occupies on any given day. Many of the same people who strongly support what I am doing through my Project work are also economically dependent on the industries, organizations or governmental bodies that may fall under scrutiny for their actions or inaction in relation to the McIntyre Powder aluminum prophylaxis program.
I believe that health and safety is a human right. Not every profiteer would agree.
It is my understanding that one mining company issued a ‘gag order’ of sorts, directing their employees not to speak about the McIntyre Powder issue. One individual who indicated that he is in mining management messaged me to state that the mining industry has evolved, and now proactively addresses health and safety concerns. That is the extent of the direct contact that I have had from mining companies – which actually trumps the direct contact that I have had at the initiative of the WSIB.
Are there any individuals or organizations who have helped you that you’d like to recognize?
I am very grateful to the United Steelworkers District 6 for their initiative in holding the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinics, and for the volunteers and partner agencies involved, primarily the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, and the Office of the Worker Advisor. OHCOW’s willingness to tackle the complicated questions involved in assessing the health impacts of aluminum dust on the affected workers is remarkable and brave. The support of my Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) family has been incredible, and I have also gathered strength and solidarity from many other phenomenal people and unions in the labour movement.
This work is daunting and it consumes much of my time, focus, and energy. The understanding and support of my husband, children, family and friends has made it possible for me to do what I can for those who were wronged by this. The willingness of those who were affected by the aluminum dust to share their stories and bear witness to this injustice makes me feel less alone in this. Thank you.
For more information about the McIntyre Powder Project, visit their website