The number of miners recorded as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in a database compiled by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) has increased to 11 from the original five reported last fall.
It’s a significant shift, since the database includes just 325 people.
By comparison, the national average of ALS diagnoses, according to the patient and research advocacy group ALS Canada, is two in 100,000. ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — is a rapidly progressing neuromuscular disease that paralyzes muscles in the body, eventually leading to death.
There is neither a cure nor an effective treatment for the disease, which affects about 2,500 to 3,000 Canadians.
“The ALS number was jumping out at us, even though it was only five, but now we have 11 people who’ve come forward,” said Dave Wilkin, OHCOW’s chief operating officer, during a presentation on McIntyre Powder research at the Workplace Safety North mining conference, held in Sudbury in April.
“It’s either the case that we have already located every person who was exposed to that powder in an Ontario mine who ever got ALS — and even then it’s too high, but maybe a coincidence — or there’s something happening here with that.”
The OHCOW database has recorded the health impacts of miners who inhaled the finely ground aluminum, known as McIntyre Powder, as a protective measure against silicosis during their tenure as underground miners in gold and uranium mines in Northern Ontario between 1943 and 1980.
The science behind the measure was later debunked, and worker advocates believe there is a link between the aluminum powder and the deteriorating health of the miners.
In addition to ALS, there are significant incidences of cardiovascular, respiratory and additional neurological disease amongst miners in the database.
Among the neurological findings are 63 miners with some form of movement disorder, 31 with Parkinson’s disease, 24 with dementia overall, 17 with Alzheimer’s disease, and four with Parkinsonism.
OHCOW is still working to complete the database and subjecting it to “rigorous biostatistics analysis,” Wilkin said.
He conceded it will be difficult to prove causality between aluminum and neurological issues, because of the many other variables — such as other toxins in the mine — that were present at the time the powder was administered. But there is existing science that shows aluminum, one of the most reactive metals in nature, to be toxic to plants and harmful in animals, including humans, he noted.
An example is the former use of aluminum compounds in the dialysis process; patients who were exposed often later developed a condition known as ‘dialysis dementia.’
“That is well known and pretty much beyond dispute at this point,” Wilkin said.
Janice Martell, who conducted the research that inspired OHCOW’s database, was prompted to create the McIntyre Powder Project after her father, retired miner Jim Hobbs, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001.
When she tried to file a claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) on her father’s behalf, it was denied because of a WSIB policy that unilaterally states “neurologic effects are not occupational diseases or injuries by accident under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act when they are alleged to result from occupational aluminum exposure.”
The policy was created based on a report from the Industrial Disease Standards Panel that said causation couldn’t be detected from blood or urine levels, and that it would require an autopsy or brain biopsy to determine whether there were neurological effects, Martell noted.
“The industrial disease panel did find that there are higher levels of aluminum in the brains of ALS patients and Parkinson’s patients, and if it is at high enough levels it can be neurotoxic, but that basically they needed more study,” she said.
That additional study never happened. However, this year, the WSIB has tasked a third party to conduct a scientific review of the policy and has said it will consider policy changes based on the results of the review.
In the meantime, OHCOW will continue to look at medical records and exposure records of miners in the database in an effort to sort out what conditions may be work-related.
Wilkin said some participants have volunteered to provide tissue samples and organs for scientific testing.
“We’re still in the early stages of getting all that accomplished,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll be able to find some answers for workers and their families, at least with respect to some of the medical conditions.”