Effects of Mining on Women’s Health in Labrador West

In 2004 MiningWatch Canada partnered with the Labrador West Status of Women Council and the Femmes francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador on a joint effort to explore community women’s own perceptions of the effects on their health from living in a mining town.

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Executive Summary

The Effects of Mining on Women’s Health Project is an initiative of two women’s organizations: The Labrador West Status of Women Council and the Femmes Francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador, in collaboration with MiningWatch Canada and the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, with generous assistance from the Lupina Foundation.

The project looked at health from the World Health Organization’s definition, including physical, mental and social health. It operated on the premise that health challenges faced by women in our communities must first be identified and understood before improvements can be made.

The project had a number of parts: the gathering of information from previous studies, learning from and educating community members, especially women, through focus groups, community based research workshops and active participation in the collection of air, soil and water samples for analysis. Interviews were held with key health professionals and women from the community, with findings summarized and disseminated to community members. Approximately 80 women took part in this project.

The project took place between March and October 2004. From July to October, workers at both the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) and Wabush Mines were on strike.

Preliminary air, water and soil samples taken during the shutdown, will provide comparisons for future sampling once the mines have been back in operation for a period of time.

Survey Results

An interview questionnaire based on feedback from the focus groups and community based research workshop, was given to 29 women, randomly chosen from 10 locations throughout the area. Included in the interview, were 10 Francophones and 19 Anglophones (including 1 Inuit woman, 2 English-speaking women from other cultures and 1 woman in a wheelchair).

We expected to find a pattern in physical health problems, but discovered instead that social issues related to health dominated. People were more concerned about addictions and abuse, shift work and isolation leading to increasing marital breakdown and depression.

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There were marked differences in the response provided by both Anglophone and Francophone groups.

Similarities

In both Anglophone and Francophone groups, the majority of women interviewed were between 40-60 years of age. Both groups had equal numbers of children in the same age range, spouses working full time, in mine related industries or unemployed. They agreed that the following services were inadequate: public transportation, child health care assessments and evaluations, legal services related to child support, language services for women of other cultures and support services for abused women. They agreed that women are more likely to have more than one job at the same time and that men are more likely to have benefits associated with their jobs.

Agreement between the two groups was evident on many issues. For instance: they agreed to sometimes feeling isolated, and that the following factors increased their sense of isolation: bad road conditions, high cost of travel, lack of social cultural, entertainment and recreational options and long cold winters. They agreed that the strike had little effect on their feelings of security about the future of the towns, or their jobs and that the mining companies had decreased their contributions to the community. They agreed that their lives were affected by the increase in the cost of electricity, poor maintenance of infrastructure and roads, and loss of French immersion. They were almost equally affected by depression, the dust in the air, and wanting to know what is in the dust. They were similarly smokers, had smoked in the past and had tried to quit more than 10 years ago.

They were unified in their lack of awareness of services for elderly women. They totally agreed that men were more likely to have a full time job, a job in the mines, a job with a pension, a job for life and a higher annual salary. They totally agreed that it is important to know what is in the smoke stack emissions and water supply, and had similar views on the federal government’s responsibility for informing us.

Differences

The Anglophone women surveyed were more likely to have lived in Labrador West longer, be homemakers, unemployed or retired. The Anglophone male spouses were more likely to be working for the mining companies. The Anglophone women were more likely to suffer from a lack of employment opportunities, notice an increase in poverty, be affected by the downgrading of health care, elimination of subsidies to school boards and loss of travel subsidies. They are more likely to retire here and more likely to have had a physical problem for which treatment was unavailable locally.

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The Anglophone women we surveyed were less likely to have been educated past high school, to have children in the area or to have parents still living. Of those whose parents were still alive, they were more likely to be living in Labrador West. They were the least likely to know about the availability of housing and services for women of any culture other than their own.

The Francophone women we surveyed were more likely to have completed university, be new to the area, work full time in non mine related occupations, have jobs that matched their education and training*, have children living in Labrador West, have parents still living, but outside the area. They are more likely to find housing and mental health inadequate (including the services of the visiting psychiatrist), and to want female doctors. They are more likely to feel the lack of extended family, friends leaving the area and the lack of training opportunities. They are more likely to have problems navigating the system and to be affected by the stigma of having to seek help. They are more likely to report having problems with low self-esteem, addictions, gambling, eating disorders, family breakdown, cycles of suicide, family violence and women abuse. Being a double minority (women and Francophone) means they have to work harder to be heard.

The Francophone women we surveyed were less likely to have spouses working for the mining companies, less likely to be married or living common-law, less dependent on their partner’s income, less plagued by the lack of independence or the traditional role of women in the family. They were less likely to be affected by shift work, less likely to know about the increase in poverty levels in the community, about the decrease in contributions by the provincial and municipal governments to the community or to be aware of the dust study done in 1982. They were less likely to retire in Labrador West and to have physical problems for which help was unavailable locally.

Physical Health:

Many of the Anglophone women identified that they had conditions that required treatment outside of Labrador West. Cancer, depression, hysterectomies, breathing problems, addictions, thyroid, headaches, arthritis and malpractice were identified as problems. A wide variety of other ailments were identified, but more investigation is needed before conclusions can be drawn. Both groups agreed that living in Labrador West could possibly cause the medical conditions. We believe that there are some immediate solutions to these problems, such as the use of water filters, eating more green, yellow and dark coloured fruits and vegetable and taking vitamins.

* Possibly due to being better educated, and bilingual

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Social Health:

The following services were rated as inadequate by women in our survey: accessibility for people with disabilities, public transportation, specialized health care (including gynecological services and visiting psychiatrist), child health assessments and evaluations, well paid economic opportunities for women, occupational training that matches available jobs, housing, legal services relating to child support, divorce and custody, services to women of other cultures (including Francophone and Aboriginal), mental health, services for elderly women, equal opportunities for women and contributions to living by the mining companies and governments. Social problems identified include addictions and depression, possibly caused by isolation and shift work.

Mental Health:

Among both Anglophone and Francophone women, lack of specialist mental health workers, depression and dust were identified as mental health issues. Among the Francophone women, who have less support and fewer services, low self-esteem, addictions, gambling, eating disorders, family breakdown, cycles of suicide, stigma around seeking help and navigating the system were identified as major issues.

Air, Water and Soil Sample Results:

Water analysis of the drinking water sources shows elevated levels of molybdenum, nickel and barium that exceed the World Health Organization drinking water standards. Analysis of a tap water filter indicates that these minerals can be effectively removed in the home.

Water analysis of the recreational and fishing areas shows very high aluminum, nickel and iron in Wabush Lake and elevated aluminum in most of the Labrador West area lakes.

Soil samples taken from two recreational areas showed chromium levels which minimally exceeded soil guidelines. Aluminum, iron, manganese and titanium were elevated and might be of greater concern for chronic exposures but there are no guidelines in place for these.

Potatoes taken from the Community Garden and blueberries sampled from Smokey Mountain had elevated levels of minerals, but would not present a health risk for daily consumption. The potato had a higher content of zinc, copper, manganese and nickel. The blueberries had slightly elevated copper and high concentrations of iron, sodium, calcium and manganese. Blueberries should be washed before consumption.

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NPRI data from 2002 indicate that IOC and Wabush Mines rank among the largest emitters of total particulate matter and respirable* particulate matter in Canada. Dust analysis for total and respirable particulates show results with some cause for concern, particularly since scattered rain throughout the sampling week had substantially reduced blowing dust.

Recommendations:

The Labrador West Status of Women Council and the Femmes Francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador should ensure that the following recommendations are passed along to the respective organizations.

The Labrador West Status of Women Council and the Femmes Francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador should:

  1. locate funding to conduct a follow up sampling regime for air, soil and water samples in the summer of 2005 to compare results taken during the strikes with results taken while the mines are operating. Further testing needs to include LC50 for rainbow trout and daphnia to determine the impact on aquatic life. Samples should be taken around the incinerator, especially the soil where asbestos is buried. work with the Ministerial Association and other stakeholders to create an independent position to identify and coordinate interdisciplinary solutions to community problems, including food banks and furniture donations.
  2. work with the Labrador-Grenfell Health Authority, Community Mental Health, Addictions Services, Child Youth and Family Services, First Steps Family Resource Centre and Hope Haven Crisis Shelter, to provide increased health education and information sessions for community members.
  3. work with the Women’s Policy Office and the Provincial Advisiory Council on the Status of Women to become more involved in education, promotion and acceptance of women in non-traditional employment.
  4. work with the Public Library and the library at the College of the North Atlantic to catalogue materials of interest to women, and provide better publicity about what is available.
  5. work with the Women’s Policy Office, the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the ministerial association, unions, mining companies and other community stakeholders to provide gender sensitivity training.

* Respirable: able to be breathed into the lungs

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The Femmes Francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador and the Francophone Association should:

  1. encourage more bilingual services, particularly in the banks, airlines, crisis shelter, hospital, municipal and provincial governments, stores etc.
  2. conduct further research and provide programs to deal with the problems of low self-esteem, addictions, gambling, eating disorders, family breakdown, cycles of suicide, family violence and women abuse.

The mining companies should:

  1. regularly report the dust and smoke stack emissions testing results to the community.
  2. work in conjunction with the municipality and unions to implement programs to reduce the impact of noise pollution.
  3. put resources in place for women from other cultures, who come to work or who come with husbands who work in the mines. These resources should be in place prior to their arrival in Labrador West.
  4. work with suppliers to ensure that properly fitting work apparel is readily available for female workers (eg. work boots, coveralls, etc.)

The unions should:

1. work in conjunction with the mining companies to conduct a study on the specialized needs and working conditions of female miners.

The town councils of Labrador City and Wabush should:

1. facilitate a new dust study in partnership with the mining companies, unions and provincial and municipal governments, to test the health of mine workers, retirees living here and outside the area and community members not working in the mines. The study should include respirable particulate as well as total suspended particulate. Information on the smoke stack emissions, should include the actual stack emission data, rather than a plume dispersion model.

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  1. work with the Labrador West Status of Women Council and the Femmes Francophones de l’Ouest du Labrador to provide a gender analysis of the results.
  2. work with the provincial and federal government to put pressure on the mining companies to increase the pace of planting grass on the tailings and various other biodiversity programs aimed at reducing dust.
  3. work with the Department of Transportation to provide a public transportation system.

Labrador-Grenfell Health Authority should:

  1. provide increased specialized health care (oncologist, rheumatologist, obstetrician, gynecologist, ophthalmologist, children’s neurologist and assessment team) including services geared for the elderly (podiatrist/foot care clinic and laser surgery for cataracts)
  2. promote the availability of female doctors.
  3. Actively lobby government for extensive repairs or a new hospital.
  4. work in conjunction with the municipalities, unions and community groups to encourage the Newfoundland and Labrador Lung Association to conduct a study on the respiratory health of the citizens of Labrador West.
  5. lobby or put pressure on the provincial government to conduct in- depth epidemiological studies on community members and retirees living outside the area, focused on the relationship of barium, nickel, molybdenum, aluminum and chromium toxicity, to deep reflexes or muscle paralysis, gastroenteritis, blood pressure, stroke, heart and kidney disease, cancer and ailments of the central nervous system.
  6. recruit a psychologist to provide specialized counseling.
  7. mandate visiting psychiatrists to provide ongoing counseling in addition to medications review.
  8. work with the Department of Health and Community Services to establish an addictions treatment centre as one of the outcomes of the proposed Mental Health Strategy.

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9. work with the Department of Health and Community Services to provide bilingual specialized mental health workers.

The College of the North Atlantic should:

1. work in conjunction with the Department of Education, Human Resources, Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to conduct a needs assessment of employers in the area in order to determine where training is needed and to provide more community based training related to jobs that are available.

Hyron Regional Economic Development Corporation should:

  1. work with the Chamber of Commerce and HRSDC to identify and promote better paying jobs for women.
  2. work with the Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs and HRSDC to provide entrepreneurial training for community members.
  3. work with the Labrador West Chamber of Commerce and the mining companies to establish a day care centre, paying particular attention to the needs of shift workers.
  4. provide better marketing of distance education courses available to both internet and non-internet users.

The grocery stores should:
1. ensure that the produce being sold is of good fresh quality.

The banks and financial institutions should:

1. work in conjunction with the chamber of commerce to provide education programs in budgeting and financial management.

The local news media in partnership with the unions, municipalities and government officials working on health and occupation issues should:

1. provide education and awareness of dust levels to community members.

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The Department of Education in partnership with the local school authorities should:

  1. provide air quality monitoring inside the schools, during the winter months.
  2. include entrepreneurial training, budgeting and financial management in the curriculum for high school students.

Newfoundland and Labrador Housing should:

1. cap the rent in their low income housing units to encourage occupancy by working families….