Written by Joshua Cheadle, edit for online by Ashleigh Whittaker.
The number of former Queensland coal miners diagnosed with black lung disease has risen to eight, with an even bigger number of suspected cases to be confirmed in the coming weeks.
Black lung disease is commonly found in underground coal miners and is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust which builds up in the lungs and cannot be removed from the body.
The potentially fatal disease was thought to be eradicated 30 years ago, however has experienced a shocking re-emergence this year.
The most recent diagnosis belongs to a man in his early 40s who worked at a number of mines throughout Queensland and New South Wales before finishing in the industry a year ago.
Mining Union District Manager Stephen Smythe believes the disease never went away, and failure of the screening mechanisms in Queensland and non-compliance of dust levels in mines is to blame.
“The thing about this whole issue is that you’re looking at 30 years of misdiagnoses and in that time, the turnover of the workforce, both underground and open cut coal mine, the number is unknown. We say hundreds, could be thousands.”
Dr Robert Edwards is a thoracic physician at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane and said there are precautionary measures taken for miners to catch the disease early.
“The underground miners are supposed to have a chest x-ray and lung function performed every five years but what happens is, if people are getting affected by it, on the chest x-ray, there may be small nodules found.”
Dr Edwards also said the nodules can be removed early to stop the disease from progressing but they are hard to identify.
“Sometimes they are missed and if [people] continue to be exposed, then people can get quite severe lung damage.”
An independent review is being undertaken to determine if the current medical assessment regime is an effective method to achieve accurate detection of the disease.
Interim findings have already been released from the review with academics and specialists from Monash University listing recommendations to undertake.
Deborah Glass is an Associate Professor from Monash University and said the current regime can be improved with better diagnoses of the disease.
“We are suggesting that there should be a smaller number of more highly trained nominated medical advisors to run the restricted components of the scheme.”
The final report’s due in June but with the recent release of the National Senate Inquiry into dust regulation in mines, plenty more recommendations have been put forward.
The mining union said it knows of another 12 unconfirmed cases of black lung disease and wants action to be taken now based on the recommendations.
“So there is a number of things, but really the implementation of the recommendations today, not tomorrow, not next week to start getting things in motion and we won’t rest until we get that. We’re focused on what we want and we won’t rest till we get to the end game.”
There is currently no cure for the disease but treatment methods for black lung range from oxygen through to steroid courses and other medication.