The Toronto Star , Aug. 18, 2017
The province’s worker compensation board has rescinded a decades-old policy that prevented Ontario miners from claiming for neurological diseases they believe were caused by years of exposure to toxic aluminum dust.
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board will also commission an independent study to assess the development of neurological conditions resulting from exposure to the aluminum-based McIntyre powder, which was used extensively in the province’s northern mines between 1943 and 1980.
As previously reported by the Star, miners were routinely forced to inhale the powder, which was sold as a miracle antidote to lung disease. Historical documents suggest it was created by industry-sponsored Canadian scientists bent on slashing compensation costs in gold and uranium mines across the north.
“When a loved one becomes sick or gets hurt, it’s natural to ask why,” said Scott Bujeya, a vice-president for WSIB.
“We ask that question, too, and we won’t leave any stone unturned until we are satisfied we have an answer based on evidence,” he said Thursday.
About 10,000 workers were forced to inhale dust, which was blasted into a sealed room before miners were sent underground.
Some have since claimed they were treated as “guinea pigs” in a human experiment aimed at cutting company costs. Until now, potential victims were unable to make successful claims at the WSIB because of a policy formed in 1993 that said insufficient evidence existed linking aluminum exposure to neurological disease.
“I’m glad some things are happening and moving forward,” said Janice Martell, who began advocating for workers two years ago after her own father, a former miner exposed to the dust, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He died from the disease in May. “The time that it’s taken for this is frustrating because so many of the workers are dying. My dad is the most recent one that I’m aware of.”
In 2016, the WSIB commissioned an independent health consultancy to research existing science on aluminum powder. The review, published Thursday, did not find a link between aluminum exposure and the development of “adverse health conditions in general,” the board said.
But as a result of the research compiled by Martell, the board has now engaged experts from the Toronto-based Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) to conduct a new study to investigate any connection between exposure to McIntyre powder and neurological disease.
Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said he was encouraged by the WSIB’s announcement.
“Exposure to hazardous substances is a major cause of occupational illness. That’s why it is important to me, and everyone at the Ministry of Labour, that occupational diseases be treated with the same seriousness as traumatic injuries,” he said.
Of the 397 former miners who contacted Martell, about one-third suffered from a neurological disorder – and she says 14 have developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative and incurable condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, that slowly kills the ability to swallow, speak and breathe.
In Ontario, the prevalence of motor neuron disease, which includes ALS, is estimated at less than one in a thousand people.
Research conducted in the United Kingdom found “strong evidence” linking aluminum to Alzheimer’s when absorbed into the blood stream.
There are 53 pending WSIB claims for illnesses attributed to McIntyre powder exposure. Because the 1993 policy is now revoked, the board says it will reach out to claimants to discuss next steps, including an option to have interim decisions made based on existing scientific evidence.
That evidence is still evolving. The OCRC study will not be complete until 2019, and McMaster University has also launched a project to test aluminum levels in surviving miners’ bodies using a non-invasive technique called neutron activation analysis.
Martell says more money is needed to help workers navigate the health care and compensation systems, including compiling evidence to help workers make claims. That effort is being spearheaded by Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, which is still waiting for its funding proposal to be approved by the Ministry of Labour.
“I’m certainly hoping that funding comes through very soon,” Martell said.