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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 13:43 GMT

Special Report

Miners' lung diseases have little chance of cure
image: [ Chronic bronchitis blocks the main air passages to the lungs while ephysema damages the lung linings ]
Chronic bronchitis blocks the main air passages to the lungs while ephysema damages the lung linings

The legal judgement enabling British miners to claim compensation for chest conditions caused by years of exposure to coal dust underground concerns two diseases, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.


Emphysema is a lung disease involving damage to the air sacs or alveoli. The lungs lose their elasticity and become less able to expand and contract.

The alveoli cannot deflate completely so less oxygen is taken into the lungs, leading to breathing difficulties.


Cigarette smoking is the most frequent cause of emphysema but for the miners seeking compensation it was the coal dust which was held to be mainly responsible for the disease.

It is thought that coal dust causes the release of chemicals in the lungs that damage the walls of the air sacs. The damage to the lungs worsens over time, affecting the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the process by which we breathe.


  • Chronic cough,

  • Bluish coloration of skin due to lack of oxygen,

  • Chronic shortage of breath,

  • Wheezing,

  • Other symptoms can include; nasal flaring, bulging eyes, dizziness, excessive sleepiness, insomnia, memory loss, anxiety and stress, impotence, weight loss.


Breathing can be improved by using hand-held inhalers. Many sufferers aid their breathing by using oxygen tanks kept at home. The thinning and removal of lung secretions to help the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide can be enhanced by physical therapy, for example chest clapping. Experimental surgery to remove badly damaged portions of the lungs is now being developed.


The prognosis is better for those people who give up smoking, but is poor for those who have extensive lung damage. Death can occur from respiratory failure or heart failure.


Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, the main air passages to the lungs. It occurs over a long period and recurs over several years.


Chronic bronchitis is a condition of excessive bronchial mucus with a cough for three months or more in at least two consecutive years.

The severity of the disease relates to the amount and duration of the exposure to coal dust and to a great extent whether the sufferer smokes cigarettes.


  • Cough that produces mucus, may be blood streaked,

  • Shortness of breath,

  • Frequent respiratory infections,

  • Other symptoms include: wheezing, fatigue, reddish face, palms and cheeks, headaches, vision abnormalities.

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. Treatment, for example antibiotics, is aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing complications.

Smoking should be avoided.

Like emphysema, sufferers can use inhalers and home oxygen tanks as well as physical therapy.


The chance for recovery is poor for the advanced disease. Early recognition and treatment combined with giving up smoking cessation improves the chance of relieving the symptoms significantly.

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