If Poplar Road looks like any street in suburban Canada, it should. The street — and the town where it was located — was the product of a 1950s planning model that was applied to countless cities and towns across Canada. Two shopping plazas, precursor to malls, were at the center of the town’s suburban-like sprawl. At its peak in 1960, the town had 25,000 residents and the distinction of being one of the largest single industry mining communities in Canadian history. This was Elliot Lake.
Within a decade of its emergence from Ontario’s northern wilderness, the population plummeted to 6,700, only to bounce back in the 1980s. The town’s population would rise and fall with every boom-and-bust in the industry. After each bust, the boom would create a large (up to 50 percent in 1981) turnover of new residents.
Elliot Lake wasn’t just any mining town. It billed itself as the “Uranium Capital of the World” (a title now claimed by Saskatchewan). At the town’s entrance, visitors were greeted by a giant model of a uranium atom. Between 1956 and 1966, there were 11 mines operating in the Elliot Lake-Blind River area. Two of those mines, Milliken Lake and Stanleigh, were less than 3 kilometres from Poplar Road.
Gus Froebel was a uranium miner. He lived with his wife and children at 32 Poplar Road. In the early 70s, he developed lung cancer. At the time, the Workmen’s Compensation Board (WCB) and the uranium industry wouldn’t acknowledge there was a link between exposure to radiation in the mines and lung cancer. As far as the WCB, industry, Atomic Energy Control Board and government-funded cancer research agencies were concerned, smoking among miners was the major cause of lung cancer. With thousands of men working in uranium mines, reversing this mind-set would have huge policy and financial implications. Gus and the union who represented him were in for a long fight.
Forty years earlier, two Czech scientists (Pirchan and Sikl in 1932) and physicians published a landmark study in the American Journal of Cancer. They linked miner’s lung tumors with radon exposure in Czechoslovakian mines. Ten years later, Wilhelm C. Hueper, a world leading expert on lung cancer and founding director of the environmental cancer section of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, came to the same conclusion. He reviewed 300 years of radon data on European miners and found that radon gas produced lung cancer that killed more than half of all miners 10-20 years after their employment. He issued warnings worldwide, including Canada. They were largely unheeded.
Declassified documents from the 1950s show that the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission told Hueper that references to occupational cancers among uranium miners were “not in the public interest” and “represented mere conjecture” (Nikiforuk 1998). Forty years after the Czech study was published and 30 years after Hueper’s warnings, a 1974 Ontario Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines found that Elliot Lake uranium miners were experiencing twice as many lung cancers as expected. The report was filed the same year the WCB would hear Gus Froebel’s case.
Uranium is a heavy metal, in fact the heaviest. When ingested in food or dust, it rapidly appears in the bloodstream. Like other heavy metals (e.g., cadmium, copper, lead and zinc), it quickly clears from the bloodstream and accumulates in bones where, like cadmium, it is thought to induces osteoporosis. It is also toxic to the kidneys. Like all metals, uranium can cross the placenta and reach the developing fetus. Although insufficient studies have been done in humans, growth and developmental effects have been observed in fetal mice. In 1999, Health Canada set an interim maximum acceptable concentration of uranium in drinking water at 0.02 milligrams per liter (mg/L).
Unlike any metal, uranium is radioactive. Trapped in ore and in the ground, uranium is relatively harmless unless it leaches into aquifers and contaminates drinking water or when its deadly radioactive by-products (thorium-230, radium-226, radon-222 and the radon daughters — lead-210, bismuth-210 and polonium- 210) escape through rock fissures and collects in the atmosphere or homes.
Uranium deposits in Elliot Lake were low grade.
It took one metric ton (2,204 pounds) of uranium ore to extract one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of uranium. The miners drilled, blasted and mucked (excavated) the ore and mill operators crushed it. Through these processes, toxic radon gas and its deadly daughters were released. The gas is easily inhaled and exhaled. The daughters, however, lodge in the lining of the lungs and bombard the delicate tissues with radiation. As for the by-products, millions of metric tons of radioactive leftovers — tailings — gave off 10,000 times more radon gas than undisturbed ore.
In 1932, the federal Department of Mines (as Natural Resources Canada was then known) knew from their own studies in Port Radium (in what was then called the Northwest Territories) that “a hazard may exist in the breathing of air containing even small amounts of radon” (Nikiforuk 1998). The federal government would not set radon standards until 1967.
Gus Froebel won his battle with the Workmen’s Compensation Board in 1974. It was hailed as a landmark victory. Lung cancer in uranium miners would now be recognized as being caused by exposure to radiation.
Even so, making a claim wouldn’t be a simple matter. Miners filing claims would often have to jump through many hoops to prove their eligibility. It was a long, sometimes expensive and not always successful process.
Not long after his victory, Gus died of his disease.
My father was also a uranium miner in Elliot Lake. Like Gus Froebel, we lived on Poplar Road just four doors away. Like Gus, and hundreds of other uranium miners, my father died of lung cancer that eventually spread to his brain. Despite having chest X-rays every year (as required for all miners), a lung biopsy, hospitalized several times, breathing difficulties and finally collapsing in the mine, local doctors attributed his condition to all kinds of diseases except work-related lung cancer. Convinced my father’s case was eligible for compensation, we sought second and third medical opinions, hired a lawyer and eventually won. Not all miners and their families were as determined.
And like Gus, my father didn’t live long after his victory.
While the last mine in Elliot Lake closed in 1996, the toxic legacy of uranium mining lives on in the miners, the majority of whom with their families are scattered across Canada. Any meaningful assessment of the true health impacts of uranium mining on Elliot Lake residents is almost impossible because of the high turnover in the population over the decades. The massive uranium tailing areas are legend. They are the subject of hundreds of studies, documentaries, books, photos and supported an army of scientists and engineers that tried to figure out how to contain the contamination.
Inka Milewski is the Science Advisor and Health Watch Director at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.