Is Coal Dust Harmful?

Entrance to a coal mine.
Wearing a mask can lessen exposure to coal dust.
Large tunnels in a coal mine.
A miner working.
Many miners face breathing issues later in life.
Coal miners exposed to coal dust may contract black lung disease.
Coal workers may eventually develop a cough that won't go away.
Article Details
  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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Coal dust is harmful—the primary dangers are two disorders called coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) and progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). Both disorders are also commonly called black lung disease because of the way they make a person’s lungs look. These disorders can happen when people who work in coalmines inhale too much coal dust over time and it accumulates in their lungs. Eventually, the accumulation of coal dust can cause tissue changes in the lungs and lead to disorders that are very similar to emphysema and fibrosis.

The symptoms of black lung disease can take years to appear. Eventually, coal workers may begin to develop a cough that won’t go away. Sometimes this cough can be quite severe, and individuals will often be coughing up a lot of mucus. Over time, they may also suffer from shortness of breath and have a feeling that their airway is somewhat obstructed. People who also smoke may develop more severe symptoms, and coal workers with a smoking habit have a greater chance of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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In the CWP form, black lung disease is usually not that dangerous. People can often recover without any major complications, and at times, they may not even realize they have a problem because the symptoms are so mild. When it progresses to PMF, things become more severe, and it may contribute to certain serious complications. There is some evidence for a greater incidence of lung cancer along with a greater risk of respiratory failure. It can also put strain on a person’s heart and lead to eventual heart failure.

Doctors haven’t yet discovered a way to treat black lung disease. The most common course of action is to help people deal with the symptoms. The most important recommendation is to limit exposure to coal dust. This can involve wearing a surgical mask of some kind while working in a mine or possibly changing jobs.

In the United States, there have been lawsuits and laws passed regarding the level of coal dust in mining environments. Some states eventually authorized compensation programs for miners who were disabled by exposure to coal dust. The Federal Coal Mine and Safety Act was passed in 1969, and it set new standards for safety in the coal industry and established federal compensation, which was similar to previous state compensation plans. Safety has been improved in the coal industry, but many former coal miners still suffer from black lung.

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Discuss this Article

asiac
Post 5

I also feel coal dust is harmful to communities and workers. I wish humans all around the world could realise how harmful mountaintop removal really is and how it doesn't just hurt the environment, but also puts people at risks for sicknesses.

Charred
Post 4

@allenJo - I am less concerned about respirable coal mine dust than I am about people who smoke. They can develop COPD and you don’t even have to work in a coal mine for that to happen.

Is it worth having shortness of breath and constant mucous buildup just so you can enjoy your cigarette?

They’re running commercials on COPD on the television all the time right now – mainly to sell medication – but I hope it will raise awareness about the dangers of smoking.

allenJo
Post 3

@MrMoody - Well if all you get is pneumoconiosis then I suppose you would be okay, at least according to the article. Most miners recover quickly from this.

But like you I am concerned about the different and invisible ways that the coal can get into your system. It’s unfortunate that the only way we discover that a mine is unsafe or that workers’ suits are not sufficient protection is when an accident happens, workers get sick or die, and the lawsuits start flying furiously.

We need to audit mining companies aggressively to ensure that their safety mechanisms are up to the highest standards. If necessary, we should impose super heavy fines on mining companies that are unsafe. Maybe that will help limit accidents and hazards.

MrMoody
Post 2

@SkyWhisperer - Well, that’s my sentiment too but the fact is we have a thriving coal industry in the United States and we need to keep the miners healthy.

I am confident that the masks are sufficient in themselves but what happens if you have a coal dust explosion in the mine? Would the masks protect you against the sheer force of the explosion? I don’t think so.

Maybe we need to build better body suits or some machine that will work to constantly purify the air or something. I am just thinking out loud. We need the mining industry. We should think of building more advanced technologies to keep miners safe.

SkyWhisperer
Post 1

You could never get me to work in a coal mine. I wouldn’t even do it wearing the surgical mask and if you paid me a lot of money. Even if you wear the mask, could the coal dust still get into your system? What if you don’t inhale it, but it seeps into your skin somehow and enters your bloodstream.

I don’t know if it can do that, but it’s a concern that I would have and that would be enough to keep out of the mining profession. Unless you have some mechanism for coal dust suppression in its entirety, I don’t think it’s worth the health risk.

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