Writing Health and History During a Global Pandemic

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This post introduces Mica Jorgenson and John Sandlos‘ recently published Canadian Historical Review article, “Dust versus Dust: Aluminum Therapy in the Canadian and Global Mining Industries.”


By John Sandlos and Mica Jorgenson

When we started writing about the McIntyre Research Foundation and its silicosis ‘cure’ in 2016, we could not have predicted that our article would be published in the midst of a global (lung health) pandemic. Nor did we anticipate the degree to which rhetoric, paternalism, misinformation, and scientific distrust would echo what we were reading in the archives. The story of McIntyre Powder, told in our new article  “Dust versus Dust: Aluminum Therapy in the Canadian and Global Mining Industries,” is a story about how risk is evaluated by people at the sharp end of industrial capitalism. It is a microcosm for how corporate paternalism and the use of selective evidence has been historically recruited as a tool to uphold harmful economic structures. Most importantly, in the midst of a public health crisis, it is a story about the way that scientific progress must take its communities and their tolerance for risk seriously if it is to be of substantial benefit. 

“It is a story about the way that scientific progress must take its communities and their tolerance for risk seriously if it is to be of substantial benefit.”

Sometimes you stumble upon a story, and sometimes a story stumbles on you. In the case of “Dust Versus Dust,” it was a bit of both. In the summer of 2016, author Sandlos was working on a general mining history of Canada (published by Lorimer Press, co-authored with Arn Keeling, and due out in September), writing a section on the huge Dome, Hollinger and McIntyre Mine near Timmins, Ontario. In several sources there were references to an experiment conducted at the McIntyre Mine whereby the company doused miners with aluminum powder as a means to prevent silicosis (a debilitating lung condition caused by exposure to silica dust). Under the direction of the McIntyre Research Foundation, the use of aluminum powder as a “prophylactic” against silicosis spread to many dusty industries such as mining, ceramics, and brick production. Although research supporting the use of McIntyre Powder proceeded without large sample sizes and suitable control groups, it was used daily in many industries between 1944 and 1979, with workers essentially forced to breathe aluminum dust (often in their change rooms) with no opportunity to refuse the treatment. 

Also in 2016, labour activist Janice Martell contacted Sandlos and frequent collaborator Arn Keeling about the possibility of producing a historical article on the use of aluminum powder in the mining industry. In 2015, Martell had founded the McIntyre Powder Project, a citizen group where workers exposed to aluminum dust could come together and document any medical issues, particularly neurological conditions, that might be associated with aluminum exposure. Inspired by her father Jim Hobbs, a former miner exposed to aluminum, Martell has mobilized medical research on the impacts of McIntyre Powder, pressed for compensation for affected miners, and brought the issue of aluminum powder to national media attention. Despite the success of the project, Martell simply did not have time to conduct the archival work that would be needed to support a historical study of the issue.

While Keeling was occupied with other projects, Sandlos was able to jump on board, excited to participate in a research initiative that would help inform a contemporary activist project (similar to work he and Keeling had done on arsenic pollution with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation). In summer 2017, he visited the Ontario Archives, which holds a huge repository of documents generated by the McIntyre Research Foundation. There was so much to take in: a massive stack of foundation-sponsored research papers, decades worth of meeting minutes, correspondence, media, and even more tactile items such as several small canisters used to hold McIntyre Powder.

Canister of McIntyre Powder (Photo by John Sandlos)

Sandlos also contacted Mica Jorgenson, then completing a doctoral thesis at McMaster University on the environmental history of the Porcupine Gold Rush. The story of silicosis quickly emerged as an important theme right around the late 1920s and continuing into the mid-twentieth century—beyond the scope of her doctoral research. Even though she knew there was not the time or space to tell the full story in her dissertation, she began collecting relevant sources. The two authors met for  coffee at the American Society for Environmental History in Columbus, Ohio, and it was clear that Jorgenson’s work on the international history of silicosis and the sources she had collected along the way complemented what Sandlos had found at Archives of Ontario. The McIntyre Foundation Fonds would complete the story. Both authors soon began poring over thousands of digitized documents, trading comments and insights from home bases on opposite sides of the country. 

Putting together the basic story of McIntyre Powder was straightforward (if meticulous) work, but we wrestled with the question of what lessons could be drawn from the McIntyre Powder story. While the field of environmental history has justly celebrated industrial health crusaders as among the earliest anti-pollution activists, here was a very different story about the industrial hygiene movement. Far from being a grassroots movement devoted to worker health, the aluminum powder project represented an attempt to address workplace environmental health issues in a way that reinforced management’s authority over workers. Clearly the McIntyre Research Foundation was a front for management interests: its directors largely came from the ranks of mine managers and company doctors and it hid behind a facade of “in-house” science that was not subject to peer review and often the target of attacks by independent researchers. The foundation vigorously  attacked objections to aluminum therapy from the broader scientific community and from within the labour movement, convinced that their “miracle cure” was the best thing for workers (even if workers objected) and also the best way to fend off strict (and expensive) standards for air quality in the mines.

We started researching and writing “Dust Versus Dust” during  the early days of the Trump presidency, and at the time the contemporary lesson from McIntyre Story seemed a relatively straightforward story of corporate health science operating in the absence of appropriate regulatory controls. But as the Trumpian contempt for science reached new lows during the Covid 19 pandemic, we asked ourselves whether the story of aluminum powder, centred, as it was, on a harmful therapeutic intervention, might be a precursor to some of the quackery (bleach and light as cures for the virus) emanating out of the White House. Leaders in politics and industry, it seemed, were all too eager to promote simplistic miracle cures rather than much more difficult and expensive actions: lockdowns in the case of Covid; ventilation and enforceable air quality standards in the case of the dusty industries. 

As the pandemic matured, we also took seriously the notion that the story of aluminum powder might be mobilized to support the anti-vaccine movement, since the presence of aluminum is often cited as a reason for their danger to human health. As two historians very excited to receive our vaccines in 2021 (partly because they have undergone clinical trials with controls and regulatory review regarding safety concerns), this was not the sort of message we were interested in conveying. Here we knew we were not alone—scientists working in public and occupational health walk a tightrope between rigorous questioning of scientific findings while communicating relative risk to audiences not always capable of interpreting its nuances. A less obvious but more pernicious manifestation of the same idea is ‘vaccine shopping’ given the differences in effectiveness, timing, and blood clot risk in available vaccines in 2021.

“What the McIntyre Powder story can tell us is we should be cautious of miracle cures when they are used to uphold an economic status quo before they are used to uphold the interests of community health.”

In the end, of course, “Dust Versus Dust” is an historical account of an occupational disease, not a modern account of global, community-spread pandemic. The lessons we can draw are thought provoking, but  are most readily applied to the particular power dynamics associated with industrial health during the time period on which the paper is focused. What the McIntyre Powder story can tell us is we should be cautious of miracle cures when they are used to uphold an economic status quo before they are used to uphold the interests of community health. By adopting the language and tools of scientific authority while actively suppressing legitimate scientific review and community concerns, the McIntyre Foundation did exactly what it was designed to do: ensure the continuation of the Canadian mining industry while transferring its costs to workers and their families. 


Feature Image: Canister of McIntyre Powder (Photo by John Sandlos).
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