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January 28, 2010

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Black lung claims gold miners

AT least seven peasant miners have died of black lung disease and hundreds more have been diagnosed with the illness after working in gold mines in northwest China's Gansu Province, the local health authority said yesterday.

At least 314 cases were confirmed in Gulang County of Wuwei City, said Cui Kai, the county's health bureau chief.

These include 252 cases from Heisongyi Town, where six died. Twelve cases, including one death, were reported in Huangyangchuan Town and 11 people were diagnosed in Shibalibu Village.

All the victims worked at a gold mine in Subei County in the industrial city of Jiuquan, 1,000 kilometers from their impoverished hometown.

"We received reports of suspected black lung disease from the local government in Heisongyi in April, and began a medical survey," said Cui.

The result was shocking. Most patients had struggled with the disease for years. Some could not afford any treatment and simply waited to die.

Chen Dejin, 50, relies on an oxygen bottle 24 hours a day. "The doctor said no medicine would work on him any more," said his wife, Ji Xinghua.

Chen was diagnosed in 2005. "We have borrowed more than 60,000 yuan (US$8,824) to cover his medical bills," said Ji.

Chen's workmate and neighbor Yang Zifa died early last year at the age of 36, leaving debts of 70,000 yuan. His wife and two sons live on a government benefit of 880 yuan a year.

Most victims blamed the disease on "ill luck," though they knew it was a result of inadequate protection.

"We wore very thin face masks and ventilation was poor in the pit. At the end of the day's work, we had to clean our nostrils of calcareous dust," said Shang Zhifa, a miner for six years before he was confined to bed with the disease.

Despite the dust, there was no water to wet the drills or bathe themselves.

"Water had to be carried from 200 kilometers away," said Shang. "About 20 of us shared one small basin of water to wash our hands and faces."

Locked in remote mountains, Gulang is one of China's poorest counties. In Heisongyi, the net per capita annual income was only 1,500 yuan last year.

Poverty forced local peasants into mining, which promised a stable income despite the high risk.

No one had a labor contract. "I asked, but the boss insisted an oral agreement would do," said Shang. "I wouldn't have agreed to that had I known the consequences."

Without a contract, it was difficult to claim compensation or refund of medical costs, said Xu Shucai, a county official in charge of labor and social security.


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