Between 1939 and around 1990, miners in northern Ontario were the subjects of an experiment using McIntyre Powder, a finely ground aluminum and aluminum oxide dust developed at the McIntyre Mine
near Timmons, Ontario. Company officials said the black powder would protect miners against getting silicosis, a lung disease.
At the start of each shift, the ritual began with the miners removing their street clothes and entering a room where their work clothes were hung. As soon as the door closed, the room began filling with a mist of black powder the miners were told to inhale, reports the Toronto Star
The Star reports that according to historical documents, the powder was designed by industry-sponsored Canadian scientists intent on slashing compensation costs in the gold and silver mines across the north. However, experts now say that aluminum is a known neurotoxin, especially if it gets into the human body in large amounts over time.
A concerned daughter helps to open up a new study
Two years ago, Dave Wilkin, with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), a publicly funded organization that deals with workplace and work-related health issues and his team joined up with Janice Martell, the daughter of a miner who was exposed to McIntyre powder while working in the nickel and uranium mines in northern Ontario between 1959 and 1990.
"I was blown away," Martell told The Fifth Estate in 2016
. "Silicosis is a disease of the lung produced by inhaling dust. So they're going to ... fight it by inhaling another kind of dust. I can't imagine grinding up a piece of tinfoil and inhaling that and then thinking that would be good for you."
Martell's father was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2001. Martell felt that the McIntyre Powder could be linked to her father's illness and filed a claim with Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) five years ago and her father was turned down for benefits.
What Martell and the OHCOW team found was astounding. They hosted clinics for miners, and after collating and studying data from the clinics, thorough health histories, and patient reports, found a "concerning" number of the miners exposed to the McIntyre Powder now have ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease.
The data from studying 300 miners revealed that seven had been diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. "This number jumps out at you," Wilkin said. "This might be telling us something. This is a very rare and a very serious condition."
ALS occurs at a rate of two cases per 100,000 people. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease
that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The brain gradually loses its ability to communicate with the body's muscles and death is the usual outcome.
A new study to look at McIntyre Powder and its link to ALS
After the evidence found in the study by the OHCOW team was presented, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario was prompted to take up the cause, and a new study will start soon. This new study won't be the first one to be conducted on McIntyre Powder.
On November 10, 1990, A study was published in the Lancet
that looked at the effects on miners exposed to aluminum powder. This is what the study concluded:
"There were no significant differences between exposed and non-exposed miners in reported diagnoses of neurological disorder; however, exposed miners performed less well than did unexposed workers on cognitive state examinations; also, the proportion of men with scores in the impaired range was greater in the exposed than non-exposed group. Likelihood of scores in the impaired range increased with duration of exposure. The findings are consistent with putative neurotoxicity of chronic aluminium exposure."
According to OHS Canada
, Canada's Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, between 1943 and 1980, McIntyre Powder was used as a prophylaxis in some gold and uranium mines, as well as certain base-metal and radium mines in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Miners in other parts of the world, including the United States, Belgian Congo, Western Australia, and Mexico, were also given the treatment prior to each shift.