We weren’t ‘looking carefully’ enough for black lung disease

Public health

By Mardi Chapman

21 Mar 2017

Damning evidence has been heard in the final days of the Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) inquiry that the health surveillance scheme for Queensland coalminers was fatally flawed.

US expert Dr Robert Cohen, medical director of the Black Lung Clinics program at the University of Illinois, told the inquiry there had been a lack of vigilance in looking for early signs of the disease.

“If you have a large population mining coal—and Queensland I believe has 30,000 miners and maybe there are 50,000 in the country—and you are mining significant quantities of coal—and I think more than 600 million tonnes of coal in Australia and 250 or 240 million in Queensland—and not have one single case sort of boggles the imagination.

That is something that really should ring alarm bells and make people think, ‘We’re not looking carefully.’”

“Then you would wonder if there was something wrong with the surveillance as opposed to congratulating yourself that you have eliminated the disease,” he said.

Speaking at a public hearing in Brisbane last week (15 March), Dr Cohen said the prevalence of black lung disease in the US had never fallen below 2%.

Given the US standards for coal dust exposure were tighter than those in Australia, it was inconceivable that the disease could have been eliminated here.

“If you found a few cases that would be more plausible and believable,” he said.

He agreed that other people including coal train drivers and coal port workers were also likely at risk.

Dr Cohen, whose team have been engaged to review chest X-rays of Queensland miners, said about 20% of images have been of a significantly poor quality. He had also observed poor quality spirometry.

The committee is expected to report back to the Queensland Parliament on 12 April.

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