Slow killer takes thousands of miners' lives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am

10,000 new cases of black lung disease discovered each year

Even if a coal miner is lucky enough not to become one of an average of 13 workers killed in explosions every day, he may still face a crueler death - pneumoconiosis.

Official figures that count only cases reported by hospitals show that there is a pneumoconiosis patient in every 3,000 people nationwide and one in every 1,000 in Shanxi province , according to He Guojia, vice-director of the China Coal Information Institute under the State Administration of the Work Safety (SAWF).

About 10,000 new cases of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, were discovered every year, most of them coal miners, and the trend was set to increase in the next 10 to 15 years, Mr He told a conference on vocational diseases co-hosted by the administration and International Labour Organisation (ILO) yesterday.

The disease is the most serious and common vocational disease in China and it is a potential threat to social stability, Mr He said.

'Mass protests sparked by pneumoconiosis are on an upward trend and it may affect social stability.'

As many miners fell ill only after they had left work to return home, they could hardly seek compensation to receive treatment from their employers, he said.

'The emergence of pneumoconiosis villages, poisoned villages, and widow villages in some areas are not just rumours to scare people,' Mr He said.

With government funding, Mr He has recently completed a two-year study on the disease. Official figures show that a total of 607,570 cases were recorded until 2005 of whom 140,000 had died - but those who are alive face a life-long torture by taking in every breath of air painfully.

'The bloodless, white injuries are far more severe than the bleeding, red injuries,' Mr He said.

'About 5,000 coal miners died in accidents in a year, but the number of pneumoconiosis victims is much higher.'

The toll claimed by the disease could be far higher than the official statistics as only half of the miners from legal mines had health checks while the total number of workers hired by illegal operators to dig into shanty pits and shafts cannot be estimated.

Even for legal mines, which are supposedly safer than the illegal pits, dust concentration levels far exceeded the safety level.

An inspection by the Coal Mine Safety Supervision Bureau of Shanxi province found that the passing rate of total dust detection in coal mining was 16.05 per cent while the passing rate for breathing dust was only 9.87 per cent.

Prevalence is particularly high among rural migrants. A government survey showed that 4.74 per cent of rural migrants working in state coal mines suffered the disease, Mr He said.

Some had contracted the disease only after mining for 11/2 years.

The disease has no cure and patients suffer symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to coughing blood.

China has developed lung lavage treatment as a relief and so far 3,000 patients had received the treatment, Mr He said.

About two lives are lost in accidents for every million of tonnes of coal produced.

What is it?

Pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung, is caused by inhaling particles of mineral dust, usually while working in a highrisk, mineral-related industry

Symptoms include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath

It can be prevented by limiting workrelated exposure to mineral dusts and asbestos, and avoiding smoking

When pneumoconiosis causes extreme breathing problems, a lung transplant is the only cure