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The families of 10 former Alcan Inc. employees who died of lung cancer after being exposed to workplace carcinogens should be compensated, an independent panel in Quebec has ruled.

The unanimous decision by the three-member panel, released yesterday, overturns a 1996 ruling by the province's health and safety commission.

The commission overestimated the role played by cigarette smoke in the workers' development of lung cancer, the panel said. All 10 workers were smokers.

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The panel rejected the cases of four other Alcan workers - also smokers - who died of lung cancer, saying there was insufficient exposure over time to a carcinogenic workplace environment.

Scientific and medical evidence was carefully weighed to determine the respective roles of cigarette-borne carcinogens and those carried in the dust and fumes of Alcan's old-technology aluminum smelters in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region.

Known as the Commission des lésions professionnelles, the panel concluded that, in 10 of the 14 cases examined, there was sufficient exposure to the carcinogens to warrant a finding that "workplace risk played a significant role in the development or evolution of lung cancer."

The decision means the families of the victims are eligible to apply for compensation under Quebec's labour laws. Montreal-based Alcan may be on the hook for millions of dollars through increased contributions to the provincial health and safety commission.

The employees were all hired to work at the Arvida and Isle Maligne smelters between the 1940s and 1970s, when little was known about the health dangers of the smelting process then in use and few precautionary or protective measures were taken.

The company began instituting measures in the 1980s and it has phased out the old technology.

There is "little likelihood" of exposure to carcinogens today, Claude Tremblay, a medical expert who presented his findings on behalf of the families, told a local all-news channel yesterday.

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The company will take the time to fully assess the ruling before deciding whether or not to appeal, Alcan spokeswoman Claudine Gagnon said.

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