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No safe level of coal dust exposure, researchers say

There may not be a safe level of coal dust exposure, University of Melbourne researchers have suggested.

Since May last year, Queensland has confirmed 15 cases of Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP), a fatal, incurable disease thought to have been eliminated 30 years ago in Australia by tighter regulations and modern mining methods.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne’s Lung Health Research Centre said there is little scientific evidence for current regulations on exposure to coal dust.

Clinical director Professor Lou Irving said scientists do not even know if there is a safe level of exposure.

“There are regulations limiting the amount of dust that coal miners can be exposed to, but they have no basis in science,” Prof Irving said.

“We simply do not know at what point exposure to dust triggers lung stiffening, or fibrosis and we urgently need to address this so we can catch it before it becomes incurable.”

The Centre, a partnership between the University’s Department of Pharmacology and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, has brought together a team of cross-disciplinary researchers to push diagnosis and management of the disease beyond measuring breathing and chest x-rays.

Centre co-director and pharmacologist Professor Alastair Stewart said new drugs, advanced technology and genomics had opened up new possibilities for this research.

“We can investigate more accurate coal dust exposure levels and monitoring, and use modern techniques to improve screening and investigate individual sensitivity to exposure,” Professor Stewart said.

The disease is believed to affect as many as 17 per cent of workers in Chinese coal mines, 36 per cent in Colombia and about 3 per cent in the United States. At its peak in 2008, the Australian coal mining industry employed about 36,700 people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“We suspect Australian rates will be similar to the US, but there is so much we don’t know,” Professor Stewart said.

“The battle against this disease is only just beginning.”

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