Miners at higher risk of lung diseases with no cure for most: Experts

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The miners are also at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a severe inflammation of lung tissues that causes obstructed airflow.

The health hazards of coal mining are many, but lung diseases caused by inhaling coal dust are the most common among miners and people living in the vicinity of mines, experts say.

Pneumoconiosis, or dusty lungs, a result of regular exposure to airborne respirable dust, affects most miners.

“In layman terms, it is called black lungs. Since miners inhale coal dust continuously, it gets deposited on the lungs over the years and the lungs appear black in colour. Miners also suffer from a condition called silicosis, which is the buildup of silica in lungs, leading to the scarring of lung tissues,” says Dr GC Khilnani, former head of the pulmonary and sleep medicine department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

The miners are also at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a severe inflammation of lung tissues that causes obstructed airflow. “Miners show symptoms such as excessive cough, shortness of breath, heavy breathing, wheezing etc. They have a higher propensity to develop tuberculosis. The health damage for people working in the mining industry is usually severe and often not treatable because by the time they reach a health facility the damage done is irreversible,” said Dr Khilnani.

Prolonged exposure to coal dust may even lead to lung cancer. “Mining is one of the contributing factors to developing lung cancer; the most common form being mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs. It is usually a result of 10-15 years of exposure history,” says Dr Ullas Batra, who heads thoracic medical oncology at Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute.

There is no cure for most of these lung conditions, with supportive treatment to ease the symptoms the only option. “To provide relief to such patients, they are put on bronchodilators. Bronchodilators are medicines that help in improving breathlessness by increasing airflow to lungs. However, it may not stop the progression of the disease,” said Dr Srikant Sharma, consultant, medicine department, Moolchand Hospital, New Delhi.

“Then there are conditions such as tinnitus (ringing in ears) as a result of heavy noises these places generate because of drilling etc, and also severe dehydration because of the hot and humid conditions inside these mines. All this, in the long run, takes a toll on a person’s body,” he added.

Dr Khilnani said miners with lung disorders should ideally stop mining to improve their health. “Wearing appropriate masks, such as the closed-circuit respirators, while mining should be mandatory to prevent the diseases from inhaling hazardous particulate matter,” he said.