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‘No comp for the widow’: a social justice story

Janice Martell and Jim Hobbs

On March 23, OPSEU member-activist Janice Martell spoke to a public meeting at McMaster University on the harmful – and deadly – outcomes of the use of “McIntyre powder” in the mining industry. OPSEU health and safety officer Terri Aversa attended the meeting and provides this review.

“No comp for the widow.”

Reading those words about a deceased miner suffering with silicosis made OPSEU Local 604 member Janice Martell sick. It was 2014, and Janice had spent eight hours one day combing through documents at the Ontario Archives offices in Toronto. Using her mobile phone, Janice snapped more than 800 photos of old McIntyre Research Foundation files. The documents had been previously kept from the public for 15 years.

The file Janice examined that day described a miner who had suffered from silicosis, a respiratory disease he had developed from exposure to silica dust while working underground. For his illness, the man received a couple of years’ worth of worker’s compensation. However, he died of another type of cancer, not assumed to be linked with silicosis.  The result? “No comp for the widow.”

Janice’s investigation into 60-year-old records on occupational disease began when her father, Jim Hobbs, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001. Jim worked at the Rio Algom Quirke 2 mine in Elliot Lake from 1978 until the mine shut down in 1990. He had spent two years at Quirke 2 before the mine stopped using aluminum dust in 1979.

When his doctor told him that miners suffer disproportionately from high levels of Parkinson’s disease, Janice set off on her quest to discover why. The treatment of her father, the documents that Janice uncovered, and her interaction with “the system,” revealed a damning story.

This is a true-life tale of a daughter trying to find the root causes of the harm inflicted on her father by toxic work exposures. It’s the story of a worker investigating occupational disease without a road map. It recounts the struggle of an activist searching to deliver justice for her father and all other miners confronted by an uncaring system that has employers, company doctors, and the worker’s compensation system working in cahoots to deny compensation for victims and their families.    

Janice’s father, like about 20,000 other miners in Canada, was made to inhale “McIntyre powder” each day before starting his shift in the mine. They were told the aluminum dust would “coat the harmful silica molecules” that entered their lungs; supposedly, it would prevent silicosis caused by inhaling fine dust. Every day, big clouds of black smoke were pumped into change rooms to be inhaled for at least 10 minutes by all the miners. Whether they received the black cloud en masse in what they called a “gas chamber,” or whether they sucked it individually through a pipe, it was the compulsory start to their day.

In 2011, Janice helped her father file a claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). She quickly witnessed how the board dispensed with her father. Contrary to the legislation, board members failed to do an occupational hygiene assessment. Instead, they did a paper review and denied the claim.

After painstakingly putting a package of information together for the pending appeal tribunal case, Janice uncovered WSIB policy 16-01-10, titled, “Occupational Aluminum Exposure, Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Other Neurologic Effects,” which disallowed WSIB compensation for aluminum exposure leading to those conditions.

Bam! Her father’s condition would be tossed out — despite the fact that her dad had inhaled this toxin for almost two years. Despite the fact that nobody else in the family had Parkinson’s. Despite the fact that Janice had unearthed a 1990 study by a group of researchers that found evidence that aluminum can be transported to the brain through nasal pathways.

The study, “Effect of exposure of miners to aluminum powder,” was supported by an applied research grant from Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, and demonstrated statistically significant evidence of cognitive deficits in the aluminum-dusted miners. This is when Janice knew she had to “go outside the system to win.” In 2014, she withdrew her father’s WSIB claim and founded the McIntyre Powder Project.

Janice ran ads in the Timmins and Elliot Lake newspapers that invited miners or their survivors to public information events that Janice hosted to find other miners exposed to McIntyre powder. For two days, she stood inside a No Frills store with a “McIntyre Powder Project” banner and an information table. On those two days, she spoke with at least 33 miners and survivors.

Janice refused to give up. She attended a miners’ reunion. She won the support of the miners’ union, the United Steelworkers (USW), and together they organized two occupational health clinics to identify other workers who were exposed. A registry of names was created.

Following the advice of John Perquin, a retired USW health and safety expert and formerly from Denison Mine in Elliot Lake, Janice googled the “McIntyre Research Foundation.” This was the group that invented McIntyre powder decades earlier and which first operated as a profit-driven company, marketing the powder to mines and other workplaces exposed to fine dust.

The group later changed its status to become a non-profit research foundation. Even so, it maintained close ties to the mining industry. In fact, the Royal Ontario Museum Mining Hall of Fame celebrates RJ Ennis (the late general manager of McIntyre Porcupine Mine) for his discovery of McIntyre powder. Somehow it didn’t make sense to Janice that one toxic substance should be ingested to block the harmful effects of another. Eventually, the foundation established a link with the Banting Institute; one of those members, Dudley Irwin, would later go on to become the medical director of the Aluminum Company of America.  

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL) eventually halted the McIntyre powder process at some mines in 1979 in the face of successful USW campaigns, newspaper exposés in Elliot Lake, and an episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate documentary that featured the harmful aspects of the powder. The Minister of Labour at the time, Dr. Robert Elgie, had met with the McIntyre Research Foundation officials, commissioned a scientific review of the issue, and lowered the boom on the use of aluminum dust. 

Other mining companies refused to follow suit. They wrote belligerent letters to the ministry, saying they did not look fondly on interference by statute. One letter to Elgie, written by the President of Pamour Porcupine Mines Limited, stated, “The industry does not need, and does not seek ‘the statutory authority for compulsory use of prophylactic agents.’”

Meantime, the McIntyre Research Foundation continued operating with close links to the mining industry until it shut down in 1992 after the use of McIntyre powder was discredited. The foundation donated its documents to the Ontario Archives and barred access for 15 years—coincidentally, the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits.

When Janice started researching the McIntyre material at the archives, what she discovered was dirty and, frankly, criminal. She found one letter from the Workplace Compensation Board (WCB) to Inco, asking the company what they thought their WCB premium rates should be. The letter demonstrated the considerable influence of the mining industry and the close relationship that the mine employers enjoyed with the WCB.  She found documents with notes that said, “Be sure to cull.” She found evidence of missing documents. She found callous statements, such as, “we’ll we have to see how it plays out in their [worker] life histories.” She found notes after the earlier research study was released that compared those who might seek compensation with those who look to win a lottery.  

Janice’s review of the documents also reveal how the entire testing procedure for McIntyre powder was rigged – and then allowed to continue for another 37 years. Testing of the substance was done by a group of mining executives, made up largely from associates of the McIntyre Research Foundation.  

The group tested the product on 50 guinea pigs for one year. They concluded no silicosis was found. When they applied the product on 13 rabbits (six in a control group and seven exposed), they found “minimal, or no fibrosis of the lung.” There were no brain biopsies performed on these animals.

That “minimal” silicosis can be seen as a success of McIntyre powder is farcical. They then applied the product to humans – hardworking miners who didn’t complain and needed their jobs to support families. These miners were prohibited from going underground until they filled their lungs with this deadly toxic stew.

Remarkably, to this day, nobody in the mining industry or in public authorities (who have a mandate to regulate mines and protect the health and safety of workers) has been held to account. Why not? Because their job was to keep the miners working and the corporate profits flowing.

The Ministry of Labour, which allowed this sham to go on for years, has also avoided responsibility. It failed to ensure the health and safety of workers by doing nothing about McIntyre Powder until the Fifth Estate “Powder Keg” broadcast in 1979.

The MOL also ignored recommendations from two Ontario Occupational Disease Panels. The first, in 1992, urged further investigation of aluminum exposure. The second, in 2005, urged the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (formerly the WCB) to not rule out causation if a toxic substance hadn’t been solidly linked to a particular occupation’s exposures.

The WCB did not just ignore the recommendations, however; in the early 90s, the WCB developed the arbitrary policy that does exactly the opposite of what the two disease panels recommended. The policy rules out certain claims based on aluminum exposure even though its harmfulness is suspected.  

To this day, the MOL errs by not following the long-term health implications of the aluminum dust.

The McIntyre Research Foundation, which tailored research to suit its needs, folded its tent and kept damning paperwork out of reach for 15 years to avoid lawsuits.

Shame on the WSIB, too. This is a public agency that is supposed to be there for workers when they seek compensation for work-related injuries. The WSIB is complicit in robbing workers and their families of not only financial compensation, but of any acknowledgement of the harm done.

To date, Janice Martell has recorded the names of 350 miners in her registry. Her work continues. Her goal, ultimately, is to challenge, overhaul, and reform the WSIB system so that it holds true to its promise, made more than 100 years ago, to provide fair compensation to workers. Janice wants to stimulate research and raise awareness of the dangers of McIntyre Powder, and to document the stories of workers who fell ill to it, or worse, who have died from it.

Most of all, Janice Martell wants justice for her father, Jim, and for all the other miners exposed to this toxic substance.  

For more information on the McIntyre Powder Project, visit http://www.mcintyrepowderproject.com.