Trading One Risk for Another

Janice Martell-memorialUnited Steelworkers member and renowned activist Janice Martell has co-authored a newly published article in an occupational health policy journal that further exposes a dark era in Canada’s mining industry when workers were forced to endure toxic aluminum dust inhalation “therapy.”

Martell, a member of USW Local 2020, works as an occupational health co-ordinator at the Sudbury office of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW). In 2015, she founded the McIntyre Powder Project to document health issues and seek compensation for underground miners who were subjected to aluminum dust inhalation as a condition of employment.

Between 1943 and 1979, tens of thousands of miners in Canada (and several other countries) were exposed to mandatory inhalation of finely ground aluminum dust, known as McIntyre Powder. Mining companies told workers – falsely – that inhaling McIntyre Powder would protect their lungs from exposure to silica dust and the development of silicosis.

There was no such thing as informed consent. Submitting to the aluminum dust inhalation “therapy” was a condition of employment.

The results would turn out to be disastrous, as documented in the new article, Trading One Risk for Another, co-authored by Martell and Dr. Tee Guidotti, an international occupational and environmental medical expert.

The peer-reviewed article, under the full title, Trading One Risk for Another: Consequences of the Unauthenticated Treatment and Prevention of Silicosis in Ontario Miners in the McIntyre Powder Aluminum Inhalation Program, is published by New Solutions, an environmental and occupational health policy journal.

The McIntyre Powder therapy was a “faux-experimental medical treatment,” based on an unproven theory – ultimately shown to be false – that it would prevent silicosis, Martell and Guidotti note in their article.

In reality, the would-be therapy “was a cheap solution to a long-standing industrial disease, developed by the northern Ontario mining industry to mitigate their financial and legal risk once silicosis became recognized as a compensable industrial disease in Ontario.”

Mining companies opted to expose workers to aluminum dust rather than implement proven safety measures that were more costly, the article reveals.

“The more expensive – but proven effective – option was for the mines to supply adequate ventilation and improved dust control to reduce miners’ exposure to the cause of silicosis.”

Martell’s inspiration for the McIntyre Powder Project and her relentless activism is deeply personal. Her father, Jim Hobbs, was a uranium miner in Elliot Lake who was subjected to the mandatory program of aluminum dust inhalation. He developed Parkinson’s disease, linked to his exposure to McIntyre Powder, and died in 2017.

In the New Solutions article, Martell vividly depicts the “surreal ritual” of mandatory aluminum dust inhalation to which her father and his fellow uranium miners were subjected:

“Jim Hobbs was thirty-seven years old the first time that he tasted aluminum dust. It was March 1978, and it was his first day going underground at Rio Algom’s Quirke 2 uranium mine in Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada. After changing from street clothes into his mining gear, Hobbs followed the other miners into a tunnel-like building that led to the cage that would transport them underground for their eight-hour shift of drilling, mucking, and blasting. The building – dubbed the ‘gas chamber’ by those who entered it – was lined with benches, and Hobbs followed the routine of the others, taking a seat and waiting for the cage call. Before that call came, and after the last man entered the building, the doors shut at both ends, the ventilation fans stopped, and the supervisor yelled what would become a familiar phrase in a surreal ritual that Hobbs would experience prior to every shift for the next year and a half: ‘Breathe deep, boys!’ The hiss of compressed air lines was quickly followed by a cloud of black dust filling the room, obscuring Hobbs’ vision of all that surrounded him as he took his first breaths of very finely ground aluminum powder swirling rapidly from punctured canisters attached to the air lines. His chest felt heavy, his exposed skin and clothes were blackened, a metallic taste formed in his mouth, and he soon joined the choir of coughing and gasping arising from the others. After ten minutes, the doors opened and Hobbs and his shift partners were herded into the cage. His first industrial medical treatment was over.”

Martell’s research and activism, supported by allies including the USW, are having a significant impact for many former miners and their surviving family members.

The USW has played an active role in the McIntyre Powder Project, helping to document as many cases of industrial disease as possible by organizing intake clinics where hundreds of miners, survivors and caregivers have been interviewed and provided support and resources.

Last year, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) officially recognized that Parkinson’s disease is a direct result of exposure to McIntyre Powder. As a result, previously rejected compensation claims are being reviewed, and many former miners or surviving family members already have had their benefit claims approved by the WSIB.

The USW is committed to supporting further research and to advocating for greater recognition of the links between exposure to McIntyre Powder and other occupational illnesses and diseases.

In their article, Martell and Guidotti credit the USW for its key role in the McIntyre Powder Project and in seeking justice for former miners and their families.

“We thank the United Steelworkers District 6 for your crucial initiative in co-organizing and sponsoring the 2016 McIntyre Powder intake clinics. Your support enabled affected mining families to access formal occupational health expertise from OHCOW, and workers’ compensation claims representation through the Office of the Worker Adviser,” the authors state.

View the full article, Trading One Risk for Another, co-authored by Janice Martell and Dr. Tee Guidotti

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