Investigating the effects of aluminum dust used in Ontario mines

Monday, December 05, 2016

Intake clinic for miners exposed to McIntyre Powder

Janice Martell greets intake clinic participants in SudburyIn October 2016, miners from across northern Ontario participated in the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinic at the United Steelworkers (USW) Hall in Sudbury to share their experiences about inhaling aluminum dust. Hosted by USW with support from the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Office of the Worker Advisory (OWA), the goal of the clinic is to advance research on the long-term health risks associated with McIntyre Powder exposure. 

Between 1943 and 1980, McIntyre Powder was used in some gold and uranium mines in Canada and the United States as well as other parts of the world. Despite a lack of scientific evidence, the powder was believed to protect workers from silicosis, a lung disease that can result from exposure to silica dust found in underground mines. 

“Aluminum is neurotoxic”

Janice Martell, founder of the initiative, began investigating the link between aluminum dust exposure and occupational disease after her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “My father is a former underground miner who was exposed to McIntyre Powder in the mines as a condition of his employment,” says Martell. “Since aluminum is neurotoxic and my father had to inhale it prior to every work shift from 1978 to 1979, I questioned whether there was a link between his exposure to the dust and his Parkinson’s.” 

JP Mrochek explains the body maps

Martell works in social services and has always been passionate about helping others. After her father’s claim was denied, Martell created a voluntary registry to document the health issues and employment history of miners who were exposed to the aluminum dust. This became the McIntyre Powder Project. “I spent a year researching the issues involved; I spoke with former mine workers and reviewed archival records from the McIntyre Research Foundation and government bodies involved in the decisions regarding the McIntyre Powder aluminum prophylaxis program. Then in April 2015, I went public.”

Since going public, Martell has partnered with the United Steelworkers which helped to make the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinic a reality. “Janice knocked on our door looking for help not knowing what to get, and this intake clinic is what transpired from that,” says JP Mrochek, a worker representative with USW Local 6500.

Tracking gold and uranium mine workers

“The clinic focused on workers from Timmins and Elliot Lake,” notes Mrochek. “The reason we targeted these areas was to track the gold and uranium mines. If you go to the gold mines you’re looking at about 30 to 40 per cent silica dust content. Then if you look at the uranium mines, the silica dust content goes up to 80 per cent. So there are a lot more cases of McIntyre Powder exposure in Timmins and Elliot Lake as the dust was thought to prevent silicosis.” 

The intake clinic welcomed physicians and nurse hygienists from the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, and representatives from the Office of the Worker Advisor and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). 

 “It’s a multifaceted clinic; the first part of the clinic is the welcome area, it’s very important for us to thank the people because this clinic doesn’t work without their information,” says Mrochek. “It’s also a time for us to not set false hopes because we are not here to initiate any claims related to Parkinson’s, ALS, or Alzheimer’s.”

Body mapping for disease clusters

From there, participants of the clinic are directed to a registration area, followed by the exposure profile section. “That’s where we want to find out where they’ve worked in the past. For each employer, a profile is done in regard to aluminum dust exposure, how long the worker was exposed, how it was dispensed, and whether they were exposed to other contaminants like uranium for example, as we know it’s a carcinogenic.”

Next up is the medical section of the clinic. “They sit down with our friends from OHCOW and we ask them to share all of their illnesses and we capture that on the body maps. If people come in with illnesses that are not diagnosed, we send them to the onsite physicians who are able to make referrals and get answers for these people.

“The body maps allow us to identify the disease clusters at a glance. The onsite physicians can quickly go to the body map and if they see something unusual, they can start asking questions. It’s a great visual and it validates a lot of our work. It also says to them ‘I’m not alone here’.”

For more information, please visit the McIntyre Powder Project website or call 1-800-461-7120.


Infographic: Workplace health and safety snapshot for Ontario mining sector in 2015

Video: Respirable hazards – Mining