Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Silicosis' Toxic Legacy Offers Deadly Lessons for Today

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Silicosis' Toxic Legacy Offers Deadly Lessons for Today

Article excerpt

Silicosis' toxic legacy offers deadly lessons for today

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Mica Jorgenson, PhD candidate, Environmental History, McMaster University

"His cough is loose ... considerable amount of thick, black expectoration ... cannot run; in the past six months has lost 16 pounds in weight ... has no appetite in the morning and feels shaky and dizzy ... diagnosis: Extensive bilateral fibrosis due to silicosis."

So reads the medical report on a Finnish miner in the October 1924 volume of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. He had been working at the Porcupine gold camp near Timmins, Ont., for nine years on the day of his examination. The mining boom, begun in 1909, attracted miners, geologists and investment from around the world.

But the rock held a deadly secret. When subjected to blasting and grinding, it produced tiny needle-like silica shards which shredded human lungs, cutting working lives tragically short.

A century later, silicosis is making headlines in Canada, thanks largely to the work of Janice Martell. Inspired by her miner father Jim Hobbs, Martell began to document health issues associated with a silicosis "cure" made from aluminum called McIntyre Powder. This spring Hobbs died after a 16-year battle with Parkinson's disease possibly related to aluminum exposure.

A massive threat emerges

Researchers are still trying to understand the connection between aluminum inhalation and neurological disease. But a look back at Canada's history of industrialization can help us understand why miners inhaled McIntyre Powder in the first place.

Silicosis did not appear in the Canadian lexicon until the turn of the 20th century. Ontario's Workers Compensation Act officially included it in 1917, and the government compensated its first case in 1924.

After that, silicosis exploded. By 1928, miners were required to carry certificates attesting to their lung health before they could be hired. Canada's immigration office screened for it, and mining firms amassed towering stacks of scientific literature.

The disease wreaked havoc not only on miners' bodies but also on corporate bottom lines, share prices and the viability of workers' compensation. The chaotic scramble to get a hold on silicosis in the 1920s signifies a desperate industry facing a massive new threat.

Shift towards industrialization

The timing of silicosis's rise is hardly a coincidence. A variety of hockey-stick shaped graphs for everything from global population to cultivated land to carbon emissions suggests a major shift in the trajectory of human and environmental history after global industrialization. …

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