Safe coal dust exposure levels don’t exist: study

Researchers at the University of Melbourne say there is little scientific evidence for current coal dust exposure regulations, following the resurgence of black lung in QLD.

Professor Lou Irving, clinical director of the university’s Lung Health Research Centre, said scientists don’t know if there is a safe dust level of exposure.

“There are regulations limiting the amount of dust that coal miners can be exposed to, but they have no basis in science,” he said.

“We simply do not know at what point exposure to dust triggers lung stiffening, or fibrosis, and we urgently need to address this so we can catch it before it becomes incurable.”

Queensland’s coal dust limit is 3mg/m3 air – higher than that of NSW and the US – with the Select Committee on Health’s black lung report recommending coal mining companies adopt the lowest Australian level of 2.5mg/m3, found in NSW, until a national standard is implemented.

The Centre, a partnership between the university’s department of Pharmacology and Royal Melbourne Hospital, has gathered a team of cross-disciplinary researchers to call for extending diagnosis and management of black lung from chest x-rays and measuring breathing.

Centre co-director and pharmacologist, professor Alastair Stewart said advanced technologies, new medicines, and genomics created new possibilities for this research.

“We can investigate more accurate coal dust exposure levels and monitoring, and use modern techniques to improve screening and investigate individual sensitivity to exposure,” he said.

Currently, 15 workers have been diagnosed with the disease in QLD, the youngest only 39.

It is believed to have affected 36 per cent of coal mine workers in Colombia, 17 per cent in China, and around three per cent in the US.

Stewart believed the rate of affected workers in Australia would be similar to the US.

The Queensland Government recently appointed a six-person Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) select committee to investigate the resurgence of the disease in the state, with the main priority of “fixing the issue”.

“There is so much we don’t know,” Stewart said, “the battle against this disease is only just beginning.”

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