Black Lung Escalates In China Just As Coal Demand Starts To Slow

CREDIT: AP/Andy Wong

Workers load coal from a truck to a process station in China's Hebei province in November.

China is the world’s biggest producer, consumer, and importer of coal. While the health effects associated with air pollution from coal-fired power plants have been well documented due to their high visibility throughout China’s urban hubs, the even more acute hazards of working in the mines have grabbed less attention.

This weekend, a dispatch from the Wall Street Journal shed some light on the growing blight of black lung for Chinese coal miners. The report states that according to official data, China’s diagnoses of black lung, or pneumoconiosis, rose sevenfold from 2005 to 2013, to a total of about 750,000 and an annual average increase of 35 percent. However this number is probably an enormous understatement. Wang Keqin, founder of the organization Love Save Pneumoconiosis, told the WSJ that the true number of black lung cases could be close to six million as up to 90 percent of China’s coal miners don’t have labor contracts that would qualify them for official health survey.

According to the United Mine Workers Of America, black lung is contracted by “prolonged breathing of coal mine dust.” It is an incurable, yet preventable disease. In 1969, the U.S. Congress implemented coal industry reforms to help eradicate the disease, which has since fallen from inflicting 7.7 percent of coal miners between 1968-1980 to 2.6 during the first decade of this century. China now finds itself at an earlier junction in this story, as coal production has surged but health and safety reforms and oversight are lagging. A 2013 study by Shantou University Medical College in southern China found that about six percent of Chinese coal workers had black lung between 2001 and 2011.

“A six percent prevalence of an avoidable disease is not acceptable, whatever else is happening in other countries,” Brian G. Miller, a pneumoconiosis expert at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, told the WSJ.

Industry watchdogs told the WSJ that while Chinese law requires coal companies to provide regular medical checkups, these obligations often go unmet. One Chinese doctor told the WSJ that the problem is not having the right policies, but enforcing them as well as helping people seek treatment who might otherwise be deterred due to financial constraints.

While China slowly implements reforms to improve air quality and worker safety oversight, the country has made a pledge to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of the global effort to mitigate GHGs. In order to arrive at this 2030 goal, China needs to start enacting change now. A new analysis from the International Energy Agency found China’s steps to improve energy intensity and broaden its energy mix away from coal will help global coal demand growth will slow through the rest of the decade.

China “has embarked on a campaign to diversify its energy supply and reduce its energy intensity, and the resulting increase in gas, nuclear and renewables will be staggering,” reads the report summary.

The IEA report found that global coal use will increase by 2.1 percent a year through 2019, less than the 2.3 annual growth rate that was predicted last year for the following five years. This slight decrease is of minimal comfort to those pursuing global efforts to keep carbon emissions below levels needed to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

“We have heard many pledges and policies aimed at mitigating climate change, but over the next five years they will mostly fail to arrest the growth in coal demand,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said at the launch of the report. “I must emphasize once again that coal use in its current form is simply unsustainable.”

According to the report, China’s coal use will rise 2.6 percent to 4.6 billion tons by 2019. India will see a growth rate of 4.8 percent over the next five years, bringing the country’s total to one billion tons. Much of this growth will come from new plants that rely on “decades-old technology” according to van der Hoeven.

Reliance on inefficient technology in mines will imperil coal miners for decades to come in countries like China and India as they are forced to endure substandard working conditions putting them at risk of contracting black lung disease.

Chinese coal miners also suffer unusually high accident rates, with the State Administration of Work Safety reporting 113 deaths from accidents in the first ten months of this year — at least ten times greater than the rate of mortality in more developed countries.