Sudbury

Autopsies could uncover health issues in miners exposed to McIntyre Powder

Janice Martell of Sudbury hasn't given up on the group of men she calls her miners. She continues to collect research to prove McIntyre Powder was toxic to those who were exposed to the aluminum dust when they would begin each shift underground. They were told it would protect them.

"Talking about autopsies is a really difficult subject when you're talking to live miners, or their families"

Janice Martell of Sudbury, continues to advocate for miners who were exposed to McIntyre Powder while working in northern Ontario mines between 1940s and 1979. The workers were told the dust would protect them, but many have developed health issues later in life. (Supplied/Janice Martell)

Janice Martell hasn't given up on the group of northern Ontario men she calls her miners.

She continues to collect documentation and research to prove the dust they were exposed to was toxic.

Four years ago the Sudbury woman began a quest to find out if McIntyre Powder, used in underground mining, was connected to health problems some miners, like her father, were experiencing.

The substance was used from the 1940s until 1979. Workers were told they needed to inhale the powder before their shifts underground to help protect them from silicosis, an incurable lung disease.

But since that time more miners have developed health issues, like respiratory conditions, neurological disorders and other problems.

Martell continues to gather information to help the miners and their families deal with Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

Martell's father, Jim Hobbs, passed away in May 2017.

The family only received the results of his autopsy this past fall. It showed a list of health issues, some that Martell says the family only suspected her father had.

The post mortem report refers to the investigation into Hobbs' aluminum dust exposure, however Martell says the autopsy showed it was cardio-pulmonary issues that contributed to the cause of death.

The autopsy was conducted at no cost to the family, under section 10 of the Coroner's Act, because they had concerns about the results of occupational exposure contributing to his death.

She adds that other miners' families have had to argue to get similar post mortems done.

Pursuing autopsies

Martell has been trying to encourage more families to pursue autopsies, but says those conversation are hard to have.

"Talking about autopsies is a really difficult subject when you're talking to live miners, or their families."

She recalls having one of these conversations with a former miner she is working with and advocating for with WSIB claims.

"He was very good about it, but he said 'So they're not going to be able to tell until I die?' And I said 'Ya'"

Martell says the results from post mortems provide further proof that the aluminum dust contributed to health issues.

"You can argue whatever you want. We think the dust did this, we think the dust did that or not, [with autopsy results] you've got actual samples."

Investigating occupational diseases

Martell also wants Ontario and the Ministry of Labour to change how it deals with occupational diseases.

"If somebody dies in a sudden death workplace fatality in the mines, or if somebody dies 30 years from now because of what they breathed in the mines they are both workplace fatalities," Martell said.

"They both should have inquests. They both should have the right to have autopsies and have that investigation."

Concerning patent, research

Recently she acquired details about the patent of McIntyre Powder. The original patent was issued in 1939, but it was a later patent, approved in 1958, that most concerns Martell.

She explained that the medical director of the McIntyre Research Foundation, Dr John W.G. Hannon applied for a new patent when he changed the formula to create a finer powder.

The patent documentation states that the finest particles would get deep into the lungs, surround the silica molecule and fight silicosis.

There are four known canisters of McIntyre Powder, that were used between 1943 and 1979. The white can pictured here is the original canister, labelled as 5 grams. The next two are labelled as 10 grams. The canister on the far right states: "For silicosis therapy. For use only under doctors direction" (Supplied/Janice Martell)

Martell says she was angry when she read this, because the miners, including her dad, were all told they needed to breathe the dust in deeply to be protected, and they'd cough it up at the end of their shift.

"But what they were coughing up was not the most damaging particles," she said.

"If you look at any pneumoconiosis, which are diseases of the lung caused by inhaling dust, it's the finest particles, those particles you can't see in the air, that are doing the most damage."

Martell says she's also discovered research by James Denny and Wilmot Robson, the co-creators of McIntyre Powder.

The research states that it's imperative to have adequate ventilation when providing the aluminum prophylaxis treatment because large amount of even inert dust will damage the lung structure.

"They knew," she said.

"Here they are giving something that they know if you have large amounts of it, it is going to damage the lung structure."

The founder of the McIntyre Powder project, Janice Martell, continues her efforts to prove that aluminum dust known as McIntyre Powder, used for decades underground contributed to health problems for miners. Janice Martell spoke with CBC reporter Angela Gemmill about what's been happening lately with the project. 7:18

About the Author

Angela Gemmill

Journalist

Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who has covered news in Sudbury, Ont., for 14 years. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to angela.gemmill@cbc.ca