Queensland

Radiologists offer urgent specialist help as Qld black lung cases swell to five

A register of radiologists able to more accurately read chest X-rays for the potentially fatal black lung disease is being urgently prepared by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists.

This comes as the Queensland government confirms five cases in seven months of patients with lung inflammation from coal dust, with further cases awaiting confirmation.

Radiologists offer to form specialist panel to review miners chest X-rays as Qld black lung disease cases rise to five.
Radiologists offer to form specialist panel to review miners chest X-rays as Qld black lung disease cases rise to five. Photo: Robert Rough

About 100,000 X-rays of miners' chests - which have been checked by GPs - are now under scrutiny.

Black lung disease, or "coal miner's" pneumoconiosis, had not been seen in Queensland for 20 years.

Pneumoconiosis is an occupational lung disease caused by the cumulative, long-term exposure to very fine airborne coal dust and takes a long time to develop.

Mine unions now fear the 75 cases of pneumoconiosis, or suspected pneumoconiosis, identified in Queensland mines in a health study for the Queensland Coal Board in 1984 are beginning to emerge.

The union covering coal miners, the CFMEU, has been sending chest X-rays of Queensland miners to the United States because they are unsatisfied with the level of investigation into the emergence of the potentially-fatal lung disease by Queensland authorities.

In the US, radiologists able to identify black lung disease – as a separate disease to emphysema as an example – are classed as "B-readers", reading to a higher standard, required by the International Labour Office in Geneva.

However the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists said the union's fears were misguided.

"There is ample local expertise amongst our members to meet the current demand for coal mine workers screening X-rays," clinical radiologist and President-Elect of RANZCR Dr Gregory Slater said.

However Dr Slater confirmed the college was now asking for radiologists who had the extra knowledge or were willing to obtain the extra knowledge to be assembled into a pool of radiologists able to be used by mine companies to better identify black lung.

Dr Slater said all radiology graduates in Australia were trained to be able to identify black lung, but said some were willing to be trained to meet the US ILO standards.

These radiologists are able to provide reports equivalent to reports provided by Level "B" readers overseas.

"RANZCR is willing to assist by compiling a register of clinical radiologists who can report to the ILO classification of radiographs of pneumoconiosis," Dr Slater said.

That register of radiologists should be available soon.

CFMEU president Stephen Smyth said lung capacity tests in the US showed a fifth case of black lung disease had emerged in Queensland recently, which had been confirmed by a Brisbane lung specialist.

The Department of Natural Resources and mines confirmed the fifth case on Monday.

The man was a continuous mine operator, meaning he was in charge of a machine that continually ripped the coal or the ore from the underground seam.

The fifth victim – a man who has worked in the mines since the 1970s - works at the Grasstree Mine, at Middlemount, north-west of Rockhampton.

He has worked in coal mines in Queensland and New South Wales, Mr Smyth said.

"The majority of his time he has spent in the New South Wales coal mines, but he has been in Queensland for the past 10 years."

On December 1, Queensland's Natural Resources and Mines Minister Dr Anthony Lynham announced a formal inquiry into black lung disease after the first three cases of black lung were revealed.

That investigation is being headed by Dr Malcom Simm of Monash University and his team is being helped by US black lung expert, Dr Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois.

Dr Cohen will examine a sample of the 100,000 chest X-rays of Queensland miners that are stored at Redbank's Safety in Mine Training and Research Station.

This is what the December 2015 Queensland's black lung review team is studying.

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