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Environment : Digging for Alzheimer's Data in Canadian Mine : Aluminum has been linked inconclusively to the brain disease. Now, miners who were forced to breathe heavy doses of the metal's dust for years are being tested.

November 20, 1990|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

And there have been other findings: brain diseases among dialysis patients living in places with heavy concentrations of aluminum in the water, for instance, or Alzheimer's-like tangles in the brains of animals injected with aluminum.

But no sooner does one of these studies appear than other scientists find reason to challenge it. In the British drinking-water study, for example, critics have argued that the water-content data might be flawed, that the researchers might have missed some Alzheimer's patients, that soil chemistry might be confusing the results, and even that Welsh-speaking patients might be misdiagnosed as demented by English-speaking doctors.

Perhaps most perplexing of all, critics noted, no matter how much aluminum the British subjects might be getting in their water, they would always be getting much more through food additives. So why should a little bit of water-borne aluminum matter?

Perl responds that aluminum is highly complex, appearing in many different forms in the environment, and probably affecting the body differently depending on how it is ingested. He became interested in the possibility that aluminum might be more dangerous if inhaled, and he put aluminum-impregnated implants into the nasal passages of rabbits. He found that the metal traveled very efficiently to the rabbits' brains along their olfactory nerves. But he didn't look at what the aluminum did to the rabbits' brains once it was there.

Thus, Perl was excited when he heard about Rifat's work with the elderly gold miners.

"It's a fascinating finding," he says. "These people should definitely be followed up."

Back in the 1930s, hard-rock mining operations were plagued with silicosis outbreaks among their workers. Silicosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the breathing of silica dust. Gold miners are particularly susceptible, since gold-bearing ore is loaded with silica.

Here in Timmins, the McIntyre Porcupine Mine set up a research institute devoted to the study of silicosis prevention. Early tests on the inhalation of aluminum dust looked promising.

"They came up with this bright idea that if you coated the lungs with this stuff, then when the miners coughed it out, they would cough out the silica they encountered at work," says Ed Vance, a former gold miner. Vance, who moved to Ontario from his native England to take a job in the mines, was amazed to be subjected to a cloud of sooty-black aluminum oxide on his first day at work.

Each day when the miners entered the headframe--a tall building where they reported to work, changed their clothes and caught elevators underground--they were required to sit for 10 minutes in the locker room while aluminum dust was blown around them.

"My husband just hated it, I can tell you," remembers Winifred Latendresse, a miner's widow from South Porcupine, near Timmins. "It used to burn his nose terrible. He used to spit up this awful black stuff. He said the taste was terrible. Some days, he'd come home and he just couldn't eat his food. He'd say, 'I'll just wait,' because he still had the (aluminum) taste."

However disagreeable the inhalation exercise may have been for the men, it caught on at an unknown number of other gold mines--and, later, uranium mines--where silicosis was a concern. Here in Ontario province, where the practice began, it didn't end until 1980, when officials decided there was no evidence that the aluminum dust was doing any good.

Soon after that, epidemiologist Rifat heard about the miners and decided to track enough of them down to make a sample. Combing the records of chest clinics in the mining area here known as the Porcupine District, she came up with the names and addresses of 1,353 men who had been miners since the 1940s. Of those, she located 647 who were alive and willing to participate in her study.

Rifat put the miners through three cognitive tests. Two of them tested memory, asking the miners, for instance, to spell simple words backward. The third test examined the miners' logical thought, asking them to complete patterns.

Not only did about twice as many miners from the aluminum-breathing group score in the "impaired" range, their amount of exposure seemed to worsen their difficulties. Rifat is quick to point out that the cause of their impairment is not yet known; it could be anything from a serious infection to Alzheimer's. Despite her caution, word of her study has caught the attention of aging miners and miners' widows here in Timmins.

"I don't know if aluminum dust done something to me," says Ange Aime Camirand, a feeble Timmins ex-miner who suspects that he has silicosis. "But I know sometimes when I want to tell some people's names, I don't remember. And I worked with them for years! Do you think the aluminum could make me forget?"

The Price of Mining Gold

Miners at the McIntyre mine inhaled aluminum dust for decades in a misguided effort to stop the lung disease silicosis. Now, many of those miners are being studied in effort to find a link between aluminum and Alzheimers disease. A miner, right, takes a smoke break outside the mine's headframe building.

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