'They were inhaling this dark cloud of aluminium oxide powder that had been blown into the air with a machine'
Imagine being a miner decades ago, about to start your shift. You’re asked to go into a sealed room and inhale high concentrations of aluminium oxide powder that are blown into the air, for 15 minutes.
It’s a frightening image, says Paul Demers of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC), “but that was done on a daily basis to these workers and they weren’t given a choice, it was part of their employment.”
Encouragingly, as of Jan. 27, 2022, nearly 40,000 miners who were exposed to the “McIntyre powder” between 1943 and 1979 can now claim benefits if they suffer from the neurological disease, after a study was completed by Demers.
The study showed that those workers exposed to the powder (which was named out of the Ontario-based McIntyre Research Foundation (MRF) as a supposed protection again silicosis) were much more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease that those who weren’t subjected to the treatment.
The powder was used extensively in Ontario and other provinces, as well as other U.S. and worldwide jurisdictions.
“It’s an important development for Ontario because it’s the first thing that’s been added to the list of presumptive diseases in quite some time,” says Demers.
“The challenge is that this McIntyre powder was used over many decades but for many of the people who were exposed [to it], it was long ago, so many of them may no longer be around to get compensation or their families.”
Some earlier research found that people who suffer from depression are at greater risk of developing Parkinson’s.
Understanding Parkinson’s disease
But what exactly is Parkinson’s?
“It is a progressive neurologic disorder that affects movement and it also affects a lot of other functions that have implications on daily living. It causes slowness, stiffness and what it’s most known for, although it isn’t present in everyone, is tremor, a shaking of a limb; it can also affect walking and balance, that’s the primary features on the motor side,” says Rebecca Gilbert, senior vice-president and chief scientific officer at the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) in New York.
Besides the problems associated with movement, “it also has a lot of what we call non-motor symptoms that can develop early or as the disease progresses and that can include fatigue, it can include cognitive issues, it can include depression, urinary problem, gastrointestinal problems — and all those things need to be managed in order for a person to live their best life,” she says.
The source of the disease, which affects more than 100,000 Canadians and about one million in the U.S., is not well understood, according to Gilbert.
“The actual cause is not known and it’s probably much like every chronic disease, a combination of your genes and environment. There are about 20 — and probably more to be discovered — genes that increase risk of Parkinson’s disease and then there’s also research into various environmental factors such as specific pesticides or industrial solvents but there’s a lot we don’t know about why that particular individual develops Parkinson’s.”
Read more: The incidence of the disease is expected to double, according to a 2019 report.
Only exercise and adopting the Mediterranean diet are two things that appear to delay the onset of Parkinson’s, says Gilbert. Treatment involves patients taking a pill that increases the level of a certain chemical in the brain.
“The underlying pathology, although we don’t know why this happens in the brain… is [it will] decrease the level of a chemical in the brain called dopamine and with lower levels of dopamine, that causes the movement problems: the slowness, the stiffness, the problems with the tremor. And so many of the treatments that are focused on alleviating the slowness and stiffness and the walking problems are treatments that increase the amount of dopamine in the brain.”
For workers who might be affected by the condition, accommodation is the best way to manage in the workplace, says Gilbert, as the side effects gradually become more apparent.
“Even if a person is able to not have to disclose their diagnosis early on, typically, as the disease progresses, their symptoms may become more obvious and they may need to share the diagnosis and so it very much depends on the person and how long they can go without involving their employer, and even knowing that they have Parkinson’s disease.”
Changing what an employee does while on the job might allow a sufferer to continue working and leading a productive life, she says.
“Let’s say somebody has a tremor and can’t work their mouse — getting them dictation software as an accommodation would be reasonable. Somebody who gets very fatigued as a result of non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s may ask for a more flexible work schedule or working eight hours but having an hour off in the middle to get their fatigue under control,” says Gilbert.
“With an HR department that is compassionate and with imaginative ways of looking for reasonable accommodations, you can find a way around.”