Officially known as coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP), black lung is an acquired condition usually found in coal miners and other workers in the coal industry which makes it an occupational hazard. It is a disease from inhalation of coal dust in which the particulates involved in this disease are foreign bodies that the lung tissue will fight off, but there is no way of ‘cleaning’ that tissue. The lung tissue is scarred leading to pulmonary fibrosis. Tiny particles of coal dust, just 2 to 5 microns in diameter, are retained in the alveoli. They are engulfed by macrophages but eventually the pulmonary system gets overwhelmed, and an immune response is triggered. In recent times, contracting black lung disease (BLD) also makes coal mine workers more vulnerable to the coronavirus or COVID-19. During the pandemic, the coal industry was labelled as “essential” to energy production. The proximity of miners in the workplace increased the risk to respiratory health putting miners in harm’s way during the spread of the coronavirus. Miners always run the risk of respiratory damage through the high levels of dust and other chemical particulates present in deep coal mining facilities. Initially, BLD does not show any symptoms but when it starts, there is shortness of breath, severe cough, and difficulty breathing due to fibrosis. Later on when the complications start, heart and respiratory failure ensue, with morbidity and mortality are related to the type of coal dust and the duration of exposure. In this article, we unpack BLD with evaluation of its causes, cases in Australia and wrap up with its prevention. 

What are the causes of black lung disease?

Breathing in dust from coal over long working hours and working on narrow seams of coal causes BLD. Coal is a mixture of compounds of carbon and hydrogen mainly formed from the remains of dead plant life which has been under pressure for a long time and since plants consist of different compounds such as sugars and cellulose tissue it is mainly a carbon compound. There are different types of coal based on their properties and composition. The coal types are anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, peat and lignite. Peat is considered the lowest grade coal among the coal types. It is formed by recently accumulated plant debris, and over time, can be converted into coal. Coal is in the form of hard rock and is seldom pure coal. In many cases coal and rock come out of the ground together and vast heaps of waste rock, often with enough coal to be combustible, exist just about everywhere that coal mining has ever happened. The occupational exposure via coal mining at coal face leads to clinical symptoms such as chronic cough, shortness of breath, weight loss, fever and finger clubbing. The complications include pleural effusion, Cor pulmonale and Caplan’s syndrome. The diagnosis for BLD involves decreased forced expiratory volume, decreased total lung capacity and X-ray findings. Coal dust that is high in silica increases the risk of fibrosis. CWP has two phases namely simple and complicated pneumoconiosis. The former is associated with little ventilatory impairment whereas the latter has severe respiratory disability and premature death. 

Debunking the open cut mines myth for coal dust exposure. 

If the past is anything to go by, Australia will mine and export coal no matter when and where the demand is coming from. Let us consider the general sentiments about coal in Australia before we tackle why cases of BLD have been rising. There is a part of Australia that thinks its coal is “clean” that provides secure jobs and prosperity. On the other hand, they are lobbyists for there is brown coal that has sustained Australia’s power generation needs for many years (although most low grade coal is no longer mined). There has been reluctance to sign on to carbon neutrality by 2050 from the Federal Government despite all States and Territories having done so. Most recently BLD was detected in open cut miners in Australia.  CWP was thought to have been eliminated in Australia but 15 underground miners have been diagnosed with the disease with many more expected to add to the tally. After serving 31 years in an open cut mine one of the open cut miners who had only ever received one chest x-ray when he first started. He has since had to deal with succumbing to CWP in central Queensland. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) emphasizes that the workers and communities in all states and territories with underground and open cut coal mines are at risk. Exposure to coal dust in both types of mining increases the risk of developing irreversible and fatal BLD. It is a grossly uninformed position to assume that the problem only applies to underground coal mines as the problem extends to every type of mining in which miners are susceptible to coal dust exposure. 

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What can be done to prevent Black Lung Disease?

By this point in the discussion, it is certain that the existing dust exposure limits are not working and policing and monitoring to prevent coal dust exposure is ineffective. The workers and communities are bearing the brunt of BLD. The next sensible question for anyone concerned is then, what can be done to prevent BLD? Prevention of BLD has got everything to do with coal dust control at its source. There is a hierarchy of controls that is implemented in the dust management plan which has elimination of coal dust at the apex of the control measures. Other measures include environmental monitoring, personal protective equipment and periodic medical examination. Our focal point will be on prevention of coal dust at its source through application of chemical dust palliatives. GRT has always combined innovation with best industry practice in the interest of saving lives. Product development ties in with the mandate to implement dust control at the source with key focus on chemistry of coal as opposed to just using water alone and achieving very poor results in addition to the costs associated with loss in calorific value of coal and the need for repetitive water spraying. GRT also factors in particle size as the bombarding effect of sprayed droplets can increase the buoyancy of the finer coal dust particles. As an industry example, for underground coal dust control, GRT Activate UG is used to superactivate water sprayed to control dust in longwall and continuous miner operations. It saturates the coal face and intercepts fine particles immobilizing fugitive coal dust. GRT Activate UG applications extend to coal dust from conveyors, large mineral stockpiles and coal in transit. 

The key areas of preventing exposure to coal dust target elimination of dust through safety management, efficiency, adaptability and environmental management. To prevent black lung disease workers must be protected from harmful effects from wind-borne coal dust particles which lead to BLD. Improvement in efficiency of existing spray systems tackles the particle size deficiencies from coal dust particulate matter and the spray effect of the coal dust palliative in water. In signing off, we reiterate that coal dust control at its source saves lives and GRT is committed to providing coal dust control solutions which prevent BLD. 

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