When the Cure Makes You Sick: Examining the Use and Effects of McIntyre Powder Use in Miners

Between 1943 and 1980, thousands of miners were forced to inhale McIntyre Powder before entering gold and uranium mines. It was believed that the McIntyre Powder provided prophylactic protection against silicosis of the lungs caused by the high volume of silica produced as part of the mining process. The adverse health effects of McIntyre Powder use are largely unknown; however, it has been suggested that McIntyre Powder is responsible for neurological and lung-related illnesses in higher instances among users than those of the regular population.

What is McIntyre Powder?

McIntyre Powder, developed by the McIntyre Research Foundation, is a finely ground aluminum powder comprised of elemental aluminum and aluminum oxide. Workers were put in sealed rooms where the ventilation would be turned off and the powder would be discharged into the air, forcing them to breath the powder into their lungs for “protection” against silica.

Tested on guinea pigs and rabbits, it was believed that the powder drastically reduced the incidence of silicosis, and was touted as a cost-saver to employers having to pay large sums of money in compensation to workers who contracted silicosis in uranium and gold mines. The animals used for testing; however, were never given any neurological testing, and brain samples were never taken. The relationship between inhaling McIntyre Powder and neurological disorders is difficult to prove, as testing, research, and funding have been largely unavailable — until now.

The Impact of McIntyre Powder

It’s a widely accepted medical fact that aluminum that reaches the blood steam is neuro-toxic. Where the research falters is in determining how much of the aluminum dust inhaled by miners until 1980 reached the blood stream. Since it is not currently possible to link the use of McIntyre Powder to neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, it is not possible for the suffers to make a claim under the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB).

McMaster University’s Ground-breaking Research

Researchers at McMaster University have pioneered a first-of-its-kind procedure that is minimally invasive and painless. The procedure measures aluminum levels in the body, thereby answering the question of how much of the powder inhaled ended up in the bloodstream. Armed with this information, miners suffering from adverse effects caused by the use of McIntyre Powder can make a claim with the WSIB for compensation.

Ontario to Provide Funding to Review Health Effects of McIntyre Powder

Dr. Christopher Exely (Keele University, England) has been researching McIntyre Powder-related health effects for over 30 years. When the WSIB claims that there is not enough evidence linking aluminum to neurological disorders, he asks “how can that be?” The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) aims to answer that question and provide the necessary information to prove that miners exposed to the powder suffering from neurological disorders have the right to file a WSIB claim.

Ontario is providing funding to review worker exposure to McIntyre Powder, and OHCOW intends to use the funding to determine whether the neurological and/or lung illness of some former miners is related to the use of McIntyre Powder. These workers could then use the information to make WSIB claims in order to receive appropriate compensation.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour has listed the following quick facts and objectives about the funding for McIntyre Powder research:

  • $1 000 000 will be provided to OHCOW to review McIntyre Powder exposure
  • An estimated 10 000 miners were exposed to McIntyre Powder during its period of use
  • OHCOW has 325 case files of miners exposed to the powder
  • An additional 90 workers are seeking OHCOW services related to McIntyre Powder exposure
  • 195 workers have reported health effects, and they’ve voluntarily registered to a database being moderated by the McIntyre Powder Project

The McIntyre Project

Janice Martell’s father, Jim Hobbs, started working in mines when he was 16, from 1959 until 1990. He was exposed to McIntyre Powder as part of a program to reduce the risk of silicosis. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2001, his daughter Janice wondered if the aluminum in the McIntyre Powder could be to blame. In 2015, Janice established the McIntyre Powder Project, which features a registry where workers exposed to the powder can list their names and other pertinent information, such as health issues. Registry is completely voluntary, and it gives a voice to those who are suffering. In 2017, at the age of 76, Jim Hobbs passed away. His perseverance and strength continue to be a motivating factor in Janice’s continued quest to document neurological and other health effects related to McIntyre Powder, as well as support worker health and safety through the project’s activism, research, and advocacy.

Read the following article for more information about the McIntyre Powder Project.

The McIntyre Project

Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator


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