“We were used like guinea pigs,” retired miner says of exposure to toxic powder meant to protect their lungs.
It was a human experiment on an unprecedented scale. Its target: 10,000 Ontario miners. Its tool: a mysterious black powder they were forced to inhale in a sealed room before plunging underground to work.
From 1943 to roughly 1980, an aluminum-based prophylaxis called McIntyre Powder was sold as an apparent miracle antidote to lung disease. It was designed, historical documents suggest, by industry-sponsored Canadian scientists bent on slashing compensation costs in gold and uranium mines across the north.
The problem: experts say aluminum is now known to be neurotoxic if significant doses get into the blood. And victims’ families say those exposed to Canada’s miracle McIntyre dust might be paying a devastating price. Janice Martell has pulled together hundreds of pages of research on the experiment after her miner father, Jim Hobbs, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001.
“Small pieces of him get taken away every day. It’s hard to watch,” says Martell, who works as a counselor in Elliot Lake. “I just felt so helpless.”
After a year of outreach, she says she has been contacted by 368 former miners across the province exposed to the powder. Around one third, she says, are living with a neurological disorder. Ten, or roughly 3 per cent, developed Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative and incurable condition that slow kills the ability to swallow, speak and breathe.
In Ontario, the prevalence of motor neuron disease — which includes ALS — is estimated at less than one in a thousand people. Because they are not based on a random sample, Martell’s numbers don’t necessarily prove that miners exposed to McIntyre Powder are more likely to suffer from neurological conditions. But they are concerning enough to prompt McMaster University to start studying survivors.
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