The United States isn’t the only country dealing with a black lung epidemic. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal documents the soaring rate of black lung disease in a country that is consuming coal at a breakneck pace: China.
The story of Ruan Fayou, a miner in south China’s impoverished hill country, might sound familiar to many miners who lived through the peak years of America’s black lung epidemic in the 1960s, and to many who are struggling with the symptoms of the disease today. As the Wall Street Journal reports,
When the shortness of breath he suffered for months became so labored that it fractured his sleep, coal miner Ruan Fayou knew he needed help.
It took another year, multiple hospital visits and repeated shunting between bureaucracies for Mr. Ruan to determine he was suffering from pneumoconiosis, a disease commonly known by its most vivid symptom: black lung.
For months before Mr. Ruan was diagnosed, he was often breathless. He caught colds easily, and the coughing never seemed to stop. “When it gets bad, I would go to bed at 10, and it would take me four or five hours to fall asleep,” he said. “I would toss and turn. I could hardly breathe.”
Pneumoconiosis in China has skyrocketed in the last decade, with some Chinese NGO’s putting the number of victims at around six million. While this could be an exaggerated statistic (a 2013 report from the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership made reference to “millions”), it is a proper reflection of China’s staggering coal consumption.
It is important to remember, however, that the conditions described in this story are not unique to China, regardless its high coal consumption. One passage in particular sticks out:
The dust thrown up when miners blast the coal face gets so thick that two colleagues three feet apart couldn’t see each other. “I can only see the light on the other guy’s helmet,” Mr. Ruan said.
Reading this, one is reminded of a passage from the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s five-part series on black lung in America from 1998, “Dust, Deception and Death”:
“I ate my dust when I was cutting as well as [fellow miners’] Danny Shepherd’s dust when he was cutting,” said Larry Hatton. “You’re supposed to only operate one of the machines at a time, but I was told to operate all the time and only shut it down when an inspector was there.”
The dust was so dense, Hatton said, that he could barely breathe and began having heart trouble. Shepherd said he couldn’t even see the shuttle cars as they rolled up to the mining machine to get their coal.
Regardless of the country, its regulations, or its coal consumption, one thing remains clear: until governments pledge to protect workers, they will have to live by Mr. Ruan’s advice:
“You just have to look out for yourself down there,” [Ruan] said. “No one will look out for you.”