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Dust to Dust: Aluminum Therapy as a Counterfeit Cure for Silicosis in the Canadian and Global Mining Industries

Fri, April 12, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Morrow


In the 1910s the northward push of prospectors and mining capital resulted in the founding of the Canada’s biggest gold mines in the Timmins (or Porcupine) area: the Dome, Hollinger, and McIntyre mines. By the 1930s incidence of silicosis (a debilitating lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust) among miners had reached epidemic proportion due to high silica content in the Porcupine ore bodies. In response, the McIntyre Chief Metallurgist, James Denny, established a research partnership with the Frederick Banting Institute (Banting was the famous co-discoverer of insulin therapy), to analyze the potential of aluminum dust as a preventative treatment for silicosis. Based on a study of 26 rabbits and a clinical trial involving 34 workers, underground miners at the McIntyre Mine were sprayed with aluminum dust daily at the end of their work shifts. The McIntyre Research Foundation subsequently exported aluminum therapy to mines throughout the globe. The practice continued to the 1980s despite a failure to replicate preventative effects of silicosis and the emergence of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s among long-time recipients of aluminum therapy. Working at the intersection of labour, health and environmental histories, this paper argues that aluminum therapy represents an extreme and important example where industry and health researchers collaborated on quick-fix (and often bogus) miracle cures rather than the systemic (and more expensive) changes to the underground environment necessary to reduce the risk of silicosis.