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Black Lung – why are coal miners at risk?

Black Lung – why are coal miners at risk?

Black Lung: What It Is and How to Prevent It

Earlier this month Queensland Mines Minister Anthony Lynham confirmed that three cases of the potentially deadly black lung had been reported by the state's coal industry – a disease thought to have been eradicated in Australia more than 20 years ago.

What is Black Lung?

So what is black lung? Why has it suddenly re-emerged, and how can we control it?

Black Lung, also known as pneumoconiosis, is a chronic, irreversible lung disease caused by the inhalation and accumulation of coal dust in the lungs.

Severe Symptoms of Black Lung

Coal mineCoal workers with Black Lung typically show symptoms of shortness of breath and a chronic cough, but with further exposure and time, the disease may progress to a more severe form known as progressive massive fibrosis.

Progressive massive fibrosis occurs when the buildups of coal dust lump together in larger lesions that show up as large (more than 1cm) opacities on x-ray. As these lesions lump together there is generally significant destruction of lung tissue, with debilitating severe symptoms including:

  • shortness of breath
  • chronic cough
  • coughing up black mucus
  • high blood pressure
  • heart problems
  • increased susceptibility to autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma (excessive hardening of the skin)

How Can We Prevent Black Lung?

As Black Lung cannot be cured, the only way to control it is through preventing exposure to coal dust. The strict application of engineering controls such as dust suppression combined with ventilation systems in all mining operations is necessary to limit exposure to respirable coal dust.

Medical examination programs are also vital, aimed primarily at early detection so interventions can be made to prevent disease progression by limiting further exposure.

While regulatory systems were set up in the 1970s, which included providing regular X-rays to detect black lung, there are reports that these regulations have not been maintained over recent years, and that these most recent cases may only be the start of a bigger problem.

You can read more about Black Lung at Explainer: What is Black Lung and Why Do Miners Get It?

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