Learning From The Past: Reflecting On The Radon Tragedy In Elliot Lake
Lung health The single biggest case of deaths directly related to radon exposure in Canada happened as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, when at least 220 miners in Elliot Lake, Ontario died of lung cancer from years of exposure in the town’s uranium mines.
The Elliot Lake tragedy ultimately compelled the United Steelworkers union to go on strike in 1974. The result led to the appointment of the Ham Commission, which helped pass one of the most significant pieces of worker health and safety legislation in Ontario five years later with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Dangers of exposure
Under the terms of the Act, the Workers Safety Insurance Board of Ontario (WSIB) accepted the claims of the 220 miners based on the hazardous working conditions in the mines. The Steelworkers union believes the true number of deaths is actually much higher, based on its knowledge of those who were thought to have suffered from exposure, and the number of actual claims filed with the WSIB. Their plight helped sound the alarm about the dangers of the invisible and odourless gas, which quietly damages the lungs over years of exposure.
“The most difficult issue in the Institute’s experience is the public’s and workers’ fear of radiation, and their mistrust of those in authority who speak about radiation and attempt to reassure them about safety relating to radiation exposure,”
“We have tragically learned the associated risks firsthand through our direct experience with radon-induced lung cancers contracted by hundreds of Ontario workers on the job,” says Dr. Fergal Nolan, retired 30-year president and CEO of the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada (RSIC). “The purpose of the Act was to make sure that a tragedy like Elliot Lake never happened again.”
People, including workers, wanted an independent organization they could trust, and the Elliot Lake case hastened the formation of the RSIC as a reputable way to address that.
“The most difficult issue in the Institute’s experience is the public’s and workers’ fear of radiation, and their mistrust of those in authority who speak about radiation and attempt to reassure them about safety relating to radiation exposure,” says Dr. Nolan. “For this reason, the RSIC does not take sides on the controversial issues of nuclear energy, uranium mining, and other such matters.”