The Real Danger in China’s Mines

Along with the high accident rate in coal mine operation, the hidden danger of lung-related disease is making coal mining in China a deadly profession. From C. Custer, L. Li and Jonathan Silin at 2non:

Hao, who asked that he be identified only by his surname, is a coal miner in Hegang, a mining town in northeastern Heilongjiang province. Like many of the miners in Hegang, Hao is employed at small bituminous coal mine by one of the dozens of private mining companies that operate the area’s hundred or so mines. His mine employs a few hundred people, most of whom — like Mr. Hao — work below the surface.

[…S]tudies have shown bituminous coal dust to be remarkably carcinogenic. A 2012 study of homes in Xuanwei, China, found that people whose households cooked with bituminous coal are far more likely to develop lung cancer (18-20% likely) than those who did not (0.5% likely). Men are 36 times more likely to die of lung cancer if they lived in homes that cooked with bituminous coal; women are 99 times more likely. Unsurprisingly, these results are also apparent in miners; a 2011 study of coal miners in Xuanwei found that coal miners also are at increased risk of lung cancer, and that the younger a miner starts and the longer he stays in the mines, the more likely he is to develop cancer. Specific rates varied based on subjects’ family histories and exposure to carcinogens outside of work, but in general, coal miners were found to be at least twice as likely to develop lung cancer as regular citizens, and in some instances the increase in risk for miners was even higher.

[…] The soot also gets in his lungs, of course, and with thirty years of mining already under his belt, Mr. Hao — who has not been screened — has a high risk of developing lung cancer even if he never sets foot in a coal mine again. He knows coal mining is a deadly profession, and is grateful to have made it this far without any major accidents. But though the number of deadly accidents is dropping, cancer risk rates climb with each successive year a miner works. Many miners who escape being buried alive or killed in explosions will ultimately still fall victim to coal mining’s slowest and quietest danger: lung cancer.

When a miner gets cancer, or even gets injured on the job, results can vary. Mr. Hao tells us smaller mining companies don’t provide mine workers with insurance, or even regular contracts, so if you get sick, whether or not you’ll get financial help with your medical bills from the company is very much up for grabs. In his experience, Hao tells us, the people who get larger compensation settlements tend to be the people capable of making a fuss and causing trouble for the company if their demands aren’t met. If you and your family members can’t raise a stink, he says, you’ll get less money.

See also Black Lungs: Hidden Tolls of Coal Mining, via CDT.

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