Powdered Poison

Activist races to prove prescribed treatment often hurt workers' health

Jim Hobbs with his activist daughter Janice Martell

YOU'VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF McKINTYRE POWDER. The fact you’re hearing about it now, it’s probably because of Janice Martell.

Janice is a past President of Local 604 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), and a community activist with a particular interest in occupational health and safety. And that’s where McIntyre Powder comes in.

As difficult as it may be to believe, hardrock miners and even workers in some other industries like pottery-making were once required to inhale quantities of aluminum dust every day, a bogus form of preventative medicine that was supposed to ward off silicosis. The dust was packaged as McIntyre Powder.

This mandatory daily inhalation was not done under medical supervision. The practice began in 1943, and ended in 1979 very shortly after a scathing CBC documentary on the subject.

More proof powder hurt more than helped

Janice’s father, Jim Hobbs, was a miner in Elliott Lake, Ontario, and a member of the Steelworkers union (USWA). He was exposed to McIntyre Powder during his working life, and in later years suffered from Parkinson’s disease. That’s just one of the diseases associated with over-exposure to aluminum: others include Alzheimer’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). The powder has now been scientifically linked to serious neurotoxic effects, and its alleged usefulness against silicosis has been called into question.

Workers' compensation aggressively rejects all claims–including one by Jim Hobbs–citing severe health damage from daily exposure to aluminum dust. As they did with asbestos they claim there was no conclusive medical evidence to prove claims of health damage. Janice Martell is determined to change that.

But it's a race against time. The workers themselves are ageing and dying. Too many stories remain untold, too much data remains uncollected. That's why Janice created the McIntyre Powder Project in 2015.

The project's aim is to document affected miners’ work histories and health problems in later life. She’s facing “all the Goliaths out there,” she says, but there will be no stopping her. “This is going to take years for me to do, but I’m going to do it.” She's not alone.

Tins full of very finely ground aluminium powder
[Claude Martel photo]

A tiny tin, a little larger than a D-cell battery, and full of very finely ground aluminium powder which was inhaled by miners around the world. It is alleged to have caused neurological conditions and other medical problems.

Gathering the proof of damaged health

The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) is on board, setting up clinics in Timmins and Sudbury last fall to register miners exposed to the dust (and next-of-kin in cases where the miners themselves have died). Their database now includes information on more than 300 miners.  

Janice has taken a leave from her job to work with OHCOW, and will be part of a delegation to present their findings to an international conference of scientific researchers in March.

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is pressing the issue:

"It's high time the [Workplace Safety and Insurance Board] recognized the terrible suffering McIntyre Powder has caused and provided the compensation these miners need and deserve–before more pay the ultimate price, just for doing their jobs."

And Thomas gives us the measure of this grassroots activist: “Janice is a fearless advocate for those who have suffered grave injustice. Hers is a powerful and tireless voice for a generation of miners who’ve developed debilitating diseases after decades of toil in dark, dusty tunnels.”

A powerful and tireless voice indeed. And we’ll be hearing much more from her in the future.

FOOTNOTE: Jim Hobbs died in late May 2017.


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