Barry Duff doesn't mince words about inhaling finely ground aluminum while working as an underground miner in Elliot Lake in the 1970s.
"Absolutely terrible," he said. "It was like being in a gas chamber."
At the time, McIntyre Powder, developed in Timmins, was thought to be a preventive measure against silicosis, and mine executives made inhaling it before the start of a shift a condition of employment for all underground employees.
So, at the start of every workday, Duff and his fellow workers would sit for 10 to 15 minutes in a tunnel leading to the headframe at the Quirke II uranium mine inhaling the dust. Miners would cough and spit it out, gasping for air, Duff said. But their protests went unheeded.
"If you got up and wandered out or wanted to leave, they would tell you, 'Sit down, and you're going to breathe this for 10 to 15 minutes or we're going to fire you,"' Duff said. "And if you got up and went out they would fire you."
Today, Duff wonders if his experience with McIntyre Powder is related to his failing memory. And he's not alone.
On Oct. 3 and 4, miners from across the North attended the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinic in Sudbury to share their stories and experiences.
Hosted by the United Steelworkers (USW)--in co-operation with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Office of the Worker Adviser (OWA) --the clinic aimed to gather miners' information into a database, with the goal of pursuing more research and eventually getting compensation for those miners who were impacted.
It's a huge undertaking. McIntyre Powder was disseminated between 1943 and 1979 at mines across Canada, the U.S. and other parts of the globe. The practice was finally abandoned by 1980, but there's been no follow-up research about its longterm effects on the miners who inhaled the dust.
To date, there's been little scientific evidence to link exposure to aluminum dust with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), noted J.P. Mrochek, a worker representative with the USW Local 6500. But the clinic is the starting point for exploring that theory.
"The only scientific literature we could find on aluminum dust is that aluminum dust never protected against silicosis," Mrochek said. "So the question is: did it cause other health issues? That's what we're here to find out."
A clinic intake can take two to three hours, as participants are guided through stations where they...