Hesperian Health Guides

Illnesses from Dust

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 21: Mining and Health > Illnesses from Dust

Lung damage caused by rock and mineral dust is a major health problem. Whether you are mining underground or above ground, you may develop lung damage if:

  • dust covers your clothes, body, and equipment as you work.
  • you cough a lot and have trouble breathing.
A man using a jackhammer wears a mask and gloves. A man working nearby does not and is coughing.

Once dust has damaged the lungs, there is no way to reverse the damage. Dust is a threat both to mineworkers and to communities near mines.

The most dangerous kinds of dust are coal dust, which causes black lung disease, and silica dust, which causes silicosis. Dust that contains asbestos (which causes asbestosis) or heavy metals is also dangerous.

Signs of lung damage

Dust from mining can make it difficult to breathe. Large amounts of dust can make the lungs fill with fluid and swell up. Signs of lung damage from dust include: EHB Ch21 Page 476-2.png

  • shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing
  • coughing up green or yellow sputum (mucus that comes up from the lungs)
  • sore throat
  • bluish skin at ears or lips
  • fever
  • chest pain
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness

Black lung disease, silicosis, and asbestosis, are serious conditions with no cure. It is best to prevent exposure to harmful dust. Because these diseases worsen very quickly, by the time you have signs all you can do is keep the disease from getting worse. If you have any of the signs above, or have been exposed to these kinds of dust, see a health worker right away.

Because smoking greatly increases the risk of lung damage from dust, it is particularly important that miners do not smoke tobacco.

Black lung disease and silicosis

Black lung is caused when coal dust blocks the lungs, causing severe and permanent breathing problems. Underground coal miners, and children and women who work separating rocks from coal, are most affected by black lung.

Silicosis is caused by exposure to silica dust. Silica is a common mineral released from sand and rocks during mining, exposing many miners to harm.

EHB Ch21 Page 477-1.png

Black lung and silicosis cannot be cured. But you can reduce the suffering they cause.

  • Drink plenty of water to help loosen mucus from the lungs.
  • Keep breathing passages open. Fill a bowl with steaming hot water and strong-smelling herbs such as eucalyptus, oregano, mint, or thyme. Put your head over the bowl, cover yourself with a towel or cloth, and breathe the vapors. Do this for 15 minutes at a time, several times a day.
  • Medicines called bronchodilators can help open the breathing passages. The kinds that are inhaled work fastest.
  • Hospitals may give oxygen to help a person breathe more easily.
  • Home-made cough syrup can reduce painful coughing. Mix:
EHB Ch21 Page 477-2a.png EHB Ch21 Page 477-3.png EHB Ch21 Page 477-4.png
1 part honey 1 part lemon juice Take a teaspoonful
every 2 or 3 hours
  • Some people believe dairy foods like milk, cheese, and butter make mucus thicker and more difficult to cough up. If eating these foods makes you feel worse, avoid them as long as you can get good nutrition from other foods.
IMPORTANT! It is not true that drinking alcohol clears the lungs of dust. Drinking alcohol only makes health problems worse.

Related health problems

People with black lung disease or silicosis have a higher risk of developing other health problems such as:

See a general health book like Where There Is No Doctor for more information.

Preventing harm from dust

By limiting the amount of dust you breathe in, lung damage can be prevented.

Mine operators should provide equipment to reduce dust in mines

  • Pump fresh air into underground mines. Mines should have many openings to the surface. Air pumps and fans can bring fresh air in and push dust and dirty air out.
Illustration of a mine demonstrating the above.
Fans to push dust and dirty air out of mine
Air pump to blow fresh air into mine
  • Provide water sprinklers to damp down dust. Store water in a tank above, and pump it or let it run down into shafts and tunnels through pipes with small holes or shower heads. “Sour water” not fit for drinking works fine. However, miners need plenty of fresh water to drink.
  • Provide cutting and grinding equipment that sprays water to trap dust.

Mine operators should provide materials to protect miners from breathing dust

  • Provide supplies such as crushed limestone and blankets to cover blasting areas.
  • Provide proper masks and make sure they are cleaned and maintained.

Workers need a place to change out of dusty clothes and bathe before leaving the mine site, and a clean area to store clothes. Mine operators also have a responsibility to find ways to keep dust from mining operations out of the surrounding communities.

EHB Ch21 Page 478-2.png
Regular use and cleaning of dust masks can prevent lung damage.
IMPORTANT! Dust kills. Miners have a right to demand that all possible methods are used to reduce dust, including protective equipment provided by the company. Dust masks prevent lung damage only if they fit tightly and are cleaned often. If you use a paper mask, change it often. If you use a plastic or cloth mask, or a bandana, wash it often.

Miners can reduce the amount of dust they breathe in

  • Wet surfaces before cutting or drilling to prevent dust from rising.
  • Spread crushed limestone to prevent silica or coal dust from rising into the air.
  • Cover blasting and grinding areas with a wet blanket or tarp to trap dust. After blasting or grinding, spray the area with water.
  • Let dust settle after blasting and before entering an area.
  • Wear protective clothes and equipment. The best mask for miners is a rubber respirator that fits tightly and has filters for the materials you work with. Miners should receive training in how to choose, use, and maintain masks. If no dust mask is available, wear a cloth around your mouth and nose, and wash it daily. Glasses or goggles will protect your eyes.
  • Wash hands and face before eating, drinking, or smoking, and during and after work.
A man washes a tool under a faucet.
  • Wash gear often. Do not shake out dusty bags — this throws more dust into the air. Wash the bag instead. If you must shake the bag, make sure the wind carries dust away from you. Cloth bags trap a lot of dust — use plastic bags if you can.

Prevent mine dust from entering your home

A house with large banana leaves covering a window.
  • Wash after work and before entering the house.
  • Leave dusty work clothes at the mine, or change out of them before entering your home.
  • Clean floors with a damp mop to remove dust. Sweeping will put dust in the air.
  • If it is dusty outside, keep doors and windows closed. If your house does not have doors and windows that close, hang curtains or large banana leaves in doors and windows.
Treatment for miners with silicosis

Lal Kuan is a village in India dedicated to mining and stone crushing. Everything in Lal Kuan is covered by a thick layer of dust. The dust is so bad it is difficult to see. For many people, the dust has also made it difficult to breathe.

Budh Ram came to Lal Kuan 20 years ago to operate stone-crushing machines. After 10 years of work, he began to have difficulty breathing. He was treated for TB by a government clinic. The TB drugs helped him for a year, but after that he began to get sick again. Budh Ram was not alone in his illness. Despite getting treated many times for TB, many workers and villagers died with terrible pain in their chests, unable to breathe.

When S.A. Azad, coordinator of an organization called People’s Rights and Social Research Centre, came to Lal Kuan, his goal was to teach the villagers to read and write. But when he saw they were dying in great numbers, he took on a different task: to help the villagers get treatment and compensation for their illness.

Azad realized that workers were being treated for TB, but they were dying of silicosis. Most workers, like Budh Ram, did not even know what silicosis was. And mine operators did not want to know about silicosis, because under Indian law they were responsible for illnesses caused in the workplace. For mine operators, it was best if no one knew the workers were dying of silicosis.

Azad contacted other organizations to build support for the people affected by silicosis, and to demand compensation and health care. After several years of organizing, the Chief Minister of Delhi agreed to hold a meeting to hear of the misery in Lal Kuan. The meeting resulted in a great victory when the Chief Minister agreed to meet the demands of Azad and the people of Lal Kuan.

A mobile medical van.

Now, after many years of suffering, the people of Lal Kuan have a community center for the treatment of work-related diseases. A mobile medical van visits the area 4 days a week giving free medical care. The government has promised to do a health survey in Lal Kuan and to give a pension to all victims of silicosis, as well as training and support to help them find other ways to earn money and support their families.

This victory has given the miners and villagers a new sense of empowerment. The air in Lal Kuan is still full of dust. But it is also full of possibility for a better future.