A Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB)-commissioned review of scientific research into the connection between aluminum powder exposure in the workplace and adverse health effects in miners has failed to find a link between the two.
On Aug. 17, the WSIB issued a release with the findings of the review — titled Systematic Review of Occupational Aluminum Exposure and Adverse Health Conditions — which Intrinsik Corp. launched earlier this year.
“Overall, the systematic review and the statistical analysis conducted showed that the question of health risks from workplace aluminum exposure is complicated,” reads the study’s summary.
“The findings across the literature were inconsistent. Epidemiological studies have failed to establish consistent associations or clear exposure-response relationships between workplace aluminum exposure and nervous system-related diseases, cognitive outcomes, lung function outcomes, and other negative outcomes.”
As a follow-up, the WSIB has commissioned the Occupational Cancer Research Centre to undertake a new study to take a closer look at the link between neurological disease and McIntyre Powder exposure.
The WSIB said the new study will use historical records, including the Mining Master File (MMF) — which has information on more than 90,000 employees in the Ontario mining industry — to “link the MMF records to provincial health records” to see if exposed miners have a greater risk of developing neurological disease compared to the general population.
The results of the study are anticipated in late 2019.
The announcement comes following mounting pressure from former miners who were required to inhale finely ground aluminum — known in the industry as McIntyre Powder — prior to their shifts at various mines across the North, as a condition of their employment.
Impacted miners have been brought together through the efforts of Janice Martell, who founded the McIntyre Powder Project, a quest to find more answers following the 2001 diagnosis of Parkinson’s in her father Jim Hobbs, a retired miner.
Hobbs died of the disease in May of this year.
Martell said the WSIB study’s findings don’t come as news.
"It doesn't surprise me whatsoever that they didn't find a link between occupational aluminum exposure and neurological disorders because they haven't studied our McIntyre miners, other than two studies that were done,” she said.
“So it doesn't surprise me at all that they can't find consistent links, because the work hasn't been done on this particular exposure and they recognize that, and that's why the WSIB has commissioned this arm's length study through the Occupational Cancer Research Centre."
Martell said she’s encouraged the study will be led by Dr. Paul Demers, director of the centre’s steering committee, as he’s well respected in the field; however, she said, he’ll only be looking at a link to neurological disorders and not cancers or respiratory issues, the cases of which make up a large portion of her volunteer registry of miners.
Her understanding is that the scope of the study has been scaled back, as the original prospectus suggested it could take a decade or more before the study would have been complete.
“They’re starting at least with neurological and that’s good,” she said.
“But the data that we’ve collected for the McIntyre Powder intake clinics that the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) has collected, that also needs some attention and I’m hoping they come through with that piece of it.”
She’s also critical of the lack of funding from the Ministry of Labour for OHCOW, which has been compiling miners’ information in a database for a future research study.
Martell has worked closely with OHCOW to host intake clinics where miners could come share their work and health histories as part of the database.
She said a complete inventory is crucial for occupational hygienists to do exposure profiles on particular mines or jobs in the mines.
OHCOW had initially been seeking $2 million for their work, but later halved that request to $1 million. Neither OHCOW nor Martell has heard any response about the funding request.
“The funding’s still not there for OHCOW, and I certainly hope they don’t think that they’re just going to forget about funding OHCOW because we’re doing our own thing,” Martell said.
“I’m the only OHCOW employee right now whose position is dedicated to McIntyre.”
Beyond the work being done by WSIB and OHCOW, other research efforts on McIntyre Powder are underway.
At McMaster University, researchers are using technology to measure aluminum accumulated in miners’ bones, while the University of British Columbia is looking at the potential of doing post-mortem brain analysis.
Prof. Chris Exley, the world’s pre-eminent aluminum research scientist, is also looking at getting involved. But they need a database, along with funding to do their work.
“I’ve been approached by miners saying, ‘I want to donate my lungs, I want to donate my organs,’ but some are dying and it’s been awful,” Martell said.
“I haven’t been able to give them that.”
Martell has been further discouraged by new revelations that a WSIB policy to assess cases of neurological disorders linked to workplace aluminum exposure would still go forward and is not retroactive to cases earlier than the decision.
It was earlier thought that the policy was fully rescinded, which would have allowed workers to make compensation claims based on aluminum exposure to the WSIB.
“I’ve got to say, this has been exhausting, this whole project,” Martell said in a video response. “If the WSIB wanted to fire me up, they sure did.”