Coal dust casts a pall over children’s health in Pakistan (2022)

Dark grey dust hangs in the dry morning air as children play barefoot outside their mud-brick houses in Duki, a mineral-rich district in southwestern Balochistan.

Duki lies around 230km from Quetta. Families hailing from as far away as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighbouring Afghanistan call these coalfields home, despite the serious public health threat posed by dust emissions from coal mining.

“My family is breathing in coal dust and black smoke, but I have no other option except to live in the coal field. A large number of local children can be seen visiting the hospital, suffering from pulmonary diseases,” says Atta Muhammad, one of hundreds of coal miners who live hand-to-mouth with their families on the outskirts of Duki.

He is a father of seven; four of his children are suffering from chest infections and he frequently visits the local hospital to get them treated.

Children’s health is the collateral damage for Pakistan’s coal

Coal dust casts a pall over children’s health in Pakistan (1)

Called “black gold” by locals, the coal is used in factories, brick kilns and the energy sectors in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The collateral damage of this way of earning is that the children of these colliers are miserable, and the air they breathe is toxic. The prevalence of asthma and other respiratory symptoms in children living near the opencast coal mining sites is high.

According to local health practitioners, children are suffering from breathing problems and chest infections due to inhaled coal dust.

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About 50 per cent of Pakistan’s coal is produced in mineral-rich Balochistan, and coal mining is a source of revenue for the province.

Amber Khan Yousafzai, the provincial vice president of the National Labour Federation trade union, says 15,000 to 20,000 labourers work in the Duki and Chamalang coal mines, many of which are unregulated, and about 5,000 to 6,000 families live near the hundreds of mines. The Chamalang mines are some of the largest in the region.

Coal dust casts a pall over children’s health in Pakistan (2)

Sixty-year-old Abdul Rehman worked in the coal industry for 26 years, but became unable to dig in deep mines after developing asthma.

He sought out an alternative career and now sells boots and slippers in the Duki bazaar.

“I am the father of eight children. My five- and nine-year-olds have respiratory illnesses. I have to make do with very basic treatment from local doctors. Only one of my children goes to school,” he says, while using a blue inhaler.

Mining companies fail to do their duty, locals say

Noor Bibi, a mother of three from Duki district, has had a similar experience. Her husband was in the mining industry for almost 13 years, but is no longer able to work.

Her two children between the ages of seven and nine have been suffering from lung disease for the past couple of years. Instead of going to school, her children spend all day looking for pieces of coal in the slag heaps near the mines, to bring home to burn.

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“The whole area is full of smoke and dust. There is no rain either. The mine owners do not help the poor workers. I am just worried about the health and dark future of my children,” Bibi says, wiping tears from her cheeks.

Coal dust casts a pall over children’s health in Pakistan (3)

The children of labourers fall ill due to a lack of health facilities, says Yousafzai, the trade union vice president.

“The government should make the health centres fully functional, keeping in mind the health and education of children. A paediatrician should also be appointed for coal miners’ children. The daily-wage miners earn a meagre amount, which is why they cannot afford proper treatment for their children.”

The Mines Labour Welfare Organization branch of the Mines and Minerals Development Department Balochistan is responsible for the welfare of mine workers, including their children’s education and health, under the Mines Act, 1923.

However, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan points out that “onsite healthcare is the exception rather than the norm”.

Speaking to The Third Pole, Sabir Shah, mines inspector at the Duki coalfield, says that under the Coal Mines Regulations 1926 and Mines Act 1923, a child below the age of 18 cannot work as a labourer in the mining area, whether it is underground, surface work or coal loading.

“If someone is found violating the act, a mines inspector after the inspection files a case and submits it through the Chief Mines Inspector at the judicial magistrate office, where a fine is imposed as per the law,” says Shah.

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Shah says that the labour wing of the mines department has insured health facilities at all mining areas, where both mine labourers and their family members, including children suffering from chest ailments, are treated.

Locals, though, tell a different story. “We live in an area that is surrounded by coal mines. There is black smoke as people burn coal in their houses for cooking and heating purposes. The majority of the children in our village are affected, as is my son,” says Muhammad Arif, who runs a tyre repair shop in Duki, adding that the workers who live here can neither afford rented houses in the city, nor can get their sick children get treated at the bigger hospitals in Quetta.

Tuberculosis and asthma high in residents

Muhammad Azeem, a doctor and the facilitator of the directly observed treatment, short-course (DOTS) tuberculosis (TB) control programme in Duki, says most of the coal miners suffer from TB, which spreads to other family members as it is a bacterial infection.

Children brought up in coal dust are exposed to pollution and have more respiratory symptoms compared with children in other areas of the district. “Most of the patients are minors. Poverty, poor hygienic living conditions and little access to health facilities are contributing factors for the spread of TB in the area,” Azeem explains.

“Globally, the incidence of TB in coal miners is 10 times higher than in the general population,” says Ahmad Wali, another doctor and an official at the provincial TB control programme in Quetta.

“The high concentration of coal dust in Balochistan’s coalfields as a result of an ineffective and unmonitored application of environmental laws and the lack of protective measures adopted by coal miners and mine owners make it even worse.”

The TB control programme for Balochistan has a care facility in DHQ Hospital Duki, but the number of those in need of treatment far exceed the facilities available, Wali says.

“Seventy to eighty patients are being examined on a daily basis at the hospital’s out-patient department; half of them are children,” Azeem confirms. “Thirty out of fourty children are usually suffering from chest infections, asthma and allergies.”

Coal dust casts a pall over children’s health in Pakistan (4)
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Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease, is common among miners’ children.

“CWP and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are two lung disorders caused by exposure to coal-mine dust. Coal miners are also exposed to crystalline silica dust, which causes diseases such as silicosis,” says Wali.

Waqar Ahmed, an assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Karachi, says that when a child breathes in the dust-laden air, it affects their respiratory system and causes allergies.

“Children are more vulnerable because their air passages are smaller than adults’, so can get choked as a result of inflammation.”

No environmental impact assessment

Sheikh Khaliq Dad Mandokhail, an assistant director of the provincial environment department in Quetta, says that, unfortunately, there is no environmental impact assessment set-up in the Duki area.

“In case of any environment-related issue, I usually visit the coalfield area. A water sprinkling system in the workplace to control the dust is needed. In case of violation of environmental protocols, the NOC [no-objection certificate, a legal document to prove a project is authorised] provided to the mine owners can be cancelled.”

Even though Pakistan is one of the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to limit global warming, coal mining is likely to continue for some time, says Danish Rashdi, programme head in Karachi for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“In Pakistan, coal power plants are in trend, given our massive needs for energy. For the time being, it seems, our reliance on coal power plants will continue till the private sector takes on the mission of decarbonisation and starts compensating for the impacts of coal, and finally moving towards clean energy in the long run.”

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This article originally appeared in The Third Pole on July 25 and has been reproduced with permission.

FAQs

What health effects are associated with coal dust? ›

Exposure to coal mine dust causes various pulmonary diseases, including coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 2. Coal miners are also exposed to crystalline silica dust, which causes silicosis, COPD, and other diseases.

Does coal mining cause black lung disease? ›

Coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly known as "black lung disease," occurs when coal dust is inhaled. Over time, continued exposure to the coal dust causes scarring in the lungs, impairing your ability to breathe. Considered an occupational lung disease, it is most common among coal miners.

What was coal dust used for? ›

For use in thermal power plants, coal is ground into dust using a device called a powdered coal mill. The resulting product, called powdered coal or pulverized coal, is then generally used in a fossil fuel power plant for electricity generation.

What does coal dust contain? ›

In general, the most common clay minerals found in coal are kaolinite and illite. With regard to the other constituents, calcite and siderite are common carbonates, and pyrite a common sulfite (Speight, 1994).

What is the risk of dust? ›

Exposure to dust can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, and prolonged exposure can lead to a range of serious lung diseases including silicosis, coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Is coal dust carcinogenic? ›

Coal dust cannot be classified as to its carcinogenicity to humans (Group 3).

Is black lungs curable? ›

There's no treatment for the disease, but doctors can help lessen symptoms. To treat shortness of breath, doctors may prescribe: Oxygen to make breathing easier. Pulmonary rehabilitation (a program to help you learn how to breathe with long-term lung disease)

Do coal miners wear masks? ›

Miners may be required to wear respirators as PPE under certain circumstances. Miners should not wear face masks while wearing a respirator with no exhalation valve, but should wear face masks when the respirator is not worn, or over the respirator exhalation valve when the respirator has an exhalation valve.

What are the signs of black lung disease? ›

In early stages, the most common symptoms are cough, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Sometime the coughing may bring up black sputum (mucus). These symptoms may initially occur after strenuous activity, but as the disease progresses, they may become present at rest as well.

How do you get coal dust? ›

Coal dust is a fine powdered form of coal, which is created by the crushing, grinding, or pulverizing of coal. Because of the brittle nature of coal, coal dust can be created during mining, transportation, or by mechanically handling coal.

Is coal dust a safety hazard? ›

Inhalation of respirable coal dust can lead to coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), a potentially disabling lung disease. Inhalation of respirable silica dust can lead to silicosis, another disabling lung disease. The most severe form of these diseases, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), can be fatal.

What are the causes of coal dust explosion? ›

Methane explosions occur when a buildup of methane gas contacts a heat source and there is not enough air to dilute the gas level below its explosion point. Likewise, fine particles of coal dust in the right concentration that contact a source of heat can also be explosive.

Can coal dust cause allergies? ›

When fine particles of coal dust that are 10 times smaller than pollens are breathed in, people get more asthma, allergies and respiratory disease.

What is charcoal dust? ›

Charcoal dust is a residue from charcoal. It is that soot black powdery substance normally found at the bottom of charcoal sacks, charcoal selling stores or in the charcoal making areas. It results from the chip offs from the charcoal slates.

What is coal ash good for? ›

Beneficial use of coal ash can produce positive environmental, economic and performance benefits such as reduced use of virgin resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced cost of coal ash disposal, and improved strength and durability of materials.

Is breathing in dust harmful? ›

Currently it cannot be confirmed that dust exposure causes asthma to develop, however breathing in high concentrations of dust over many years is thought to reduce lung function in the long term and contribute to disorders like chronic bronchitis and heart and lung disorders.

Can inhaling dust make you sick? ›

You may not think it's a big deal when you breathe in dust, but for some people, it could bring on a lung disease called hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It's an allergic reaction to particles in the dust, and it can cause symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath.

What is the most harmful dust? ›

Generally, the most dangerous types of dust are those with very small particles which are invisible to the human eye, as is the case with fine powders. These types of particles are small enough to be inhaled but at the same time large enough to remain trapped in the lung tissue and not exhaled.

Is coal toxic to touch? ›

Coal is a naturally-occurring mineral. It is not toxic.

Does coal dust cause silicosis? ›

Pneumoconiosis refers to fibrotic (scarring) disease of the lung tissue caused by inhalation of respirable-sized mineral dusts. The primary pneumoconiosis seen in coal miners are coal workers' pneumoconiosis and silicosis.

Which disease is caused by inhalation of iron dust? ›

Pulmonary Siderosis results from inhalation of iron dust or fumes. It falls into the group of pneumoconioses in which the pulmonary reaction is minimal despite a heavy dust load.

How do you treat dust in the lungs? ›

There isn't any treatment that can remove the specks of mineral dust in your lungs. Instead, most treatments try to keep your lungs working. You may need to stop doing the work that led to your pneumoconiosis. If you're a smoker, your doctor will recommend you quit to improve your lung health.

What happens when dust gets in your lungs? ›

Dust particles and dust-containing macrophages collect in the lung tissues, causing injury to the lungs. The amount of dust and the kinds of particles involved influence how serious the lung injury will be. For example, after the macrophages swallow silica particles, they die and give off toxic substances.

How long can u live with black lungs? ›

In the past, only about 50% of people who received a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis lived another 3 years, while close to 20% lived another 5 years. However, new medications may slow the progression of the condition and reduce the risk of death in the first few years after diagnosis.

What is a coal miner called? ›

1. coal miner - someone who works in a coal mine. collier, pitman. miner, mineworker - laborer who works in a mine.

Do all coal miners get black lung? ›

One in ten underground coal miners who have worked in mines for at least 25 years were identified as having black lung, according to a new report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published in the American Journal of Public Health .

What is the average lifespan of a coal miner? ›

The average life expectancy in the coal mines for those starting work at 15 y was found to be 58.91 y and 49.23 y for surface and underground workers respectively. In the coloured/metal mines they were 60.24 y and 56.55 y respectively.

Which is the best medicine for lung infection? ›

A bacterial infection usually requires antibiotics in order to clear it up. A fungal lung infection will require treatment with an antifungal medication, such as ketoconazole or voriconazole.

Will a CT scan show black lung? ›

Black lung disease is observable on chest x-ray and CT scans.

Can house dust cause pulmonary fibrosis? ›

Exposure to toxins like asbestos, coal dust or silica (including workers in the coal mining and sandblasting industry) can lead to pulmonary fibrosis.

Can coal dust cause allergies? ›

When fine particles of coal dust that are 10 times smaller than pollens are breathed in, people get more asthma, allergies and respiratory disease.

Is coal dust a safety hazard? ›

Inhalation of respirable coal dust can lead to coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), a potentially disabling lung disease. Inhalation of respirable silica dust can lead to silicosis, another disabling lung disease. The most severe form of these diseases, progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), can be fatal.

What is charcoal dust? ›

Charcoal dust is a residue from charcoal. It is that soot black powdery substance normally found at the bottom of charcoal sacks, charcoal selling stores or in the charcoal making areas. It results from the chip offs from the charcoal slates.

Is coal dust corrosive? ›

In addition to mine waters, coal itself has been shown to be corrosive. This is not surprising since graphite is one of the most noble components of the galvanic series. Thus, galvanic corrosion should be expected.

What is the best medicine for dust allergy? ›

These drugs include fluticasone propionate (Flonase Allergy Relief), mometasone furoate (Nasonex), triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR), ciclesonide (Omnaris) and others. Nasal corticosteroids provide a low dose of the drug and have a much lower risk of side effects compared with oral corticosteroids.

Can you get sick from dust inhalation? ›

You may not think it's a big deal when you breathe in dust, but for some people, it could bring on a lung disease called hypersensitivity pneumonitis. It's an allergic reaction to particles in the dust, and it can cause symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath.

Can dust make you sick? ›

Overview. Dust mite allergy is an allergic reaction to tiny bugs that commonly live in house dust. Signs of dust mite allergy include those common to hay fever, such as sneezing and runny nose. Many people with dust mite allergy also experience signs of asthma, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.

What type of hazard is harmful dust? ›

High exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust causes silicosis, a lung disease that can lead to serious breathing difficulties, lung cancer and loss of life. There are three types of silicosis, namely – chronic silicosis accelerated silicosis and acute silicosis.

How do I get rid of coal dust? ›

Regular vacuuming prevents coal dust from building up. Vacuum your home from the top down. Use an upholstery attachment to vacuum dust from the walls and wall hangings. Work your way down to furniture level and vacuum hard-surfaced and upholstered furniture.

What is the size of coal dust? ›

Coal dust generally comprises a small component of total dust present in air near coal mines, railways and coal export terminals. Nevertheless, coal dust emissions can affect amenity, and predominantly comprises coarse dust particles (dustfall) of particle size generally between 50 and 200 microns in diameter.

Is charcoal the same as coal? ›

Coal is a natural mineral that forms over the span of millions of years while charcoal is a manufactured product created from wood. While coal in its natural state is never used alone in a barbeque or smoker, it is commonly added to charcoal briquettes to increase the energy density.

Is charcoal powder made of coal? ›

Common charcoal is made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, or petroleum. Sugar charcoal is obtained from the carbonization of sugar and is particularly pure.

How many types of charcoal are there? ›

Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis — the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen. We at Indian charcoal make 4 types of charcoal which has both commercial and domestic uses.

Is coal dust abrasive? ›

Coal slag is a versatile abrasive that can be utilized in many different applications due to its wide array of mesh sizes. #40/80 Mesh Applications: Light Rust.

Does coal dust burn? ›

If not properly controlled, coal and coal dust can cause fires, explosions, and implosions at power plants.

Is coal safe to handle? ›

Coal is safe, inert and has been transported safely for more than 40 years. The International Agency for Research on Cancer does not include coal dust on its list of carcinogenic agents harmful to humans. Each rail car is sprayed with a coating that forms a thin crust on the coal to keep it in place.

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