India is in the midst of a construction boom, and increased demand for granite, sandstone and other minerals has resulted in the creation of numerous stone quarries in mineral-rich parts of the country, especially in Madhya Pradesh state. The new quarries have attracted over a million people, who have few opportunities in their home villages, with promises of well-paying mining jobs. But these relatively lucrative jobs have proven to be highly dangerous, not least due to the risk of contracting silicosis, an incurable and often fatal respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust. According to India’s Directorate General of Mines Safety, an estimated 230,000 mine workers in India are at risk of developing silicosis.
Typical mining activities such as rock drilling release invisible airborne crystalline silica particulates, which scar the lungs and never exit once inhaled. Build-up of crystalline silica in the lungs over time can lead to asthma, and eventually silicosis.
Indore-based NGO Nai Shuruwat reports that of 1,721 mine workers across three districts of Madhya Pradesh diagnosed with silicosis in 2014-2015, at least 589 are already dead. The short amount of time between the diagnoses and deaths suggests long-term exposure to extreme levels of crystalline silica. While main culprit is the lack of safety measures, lung screenings and person protective equipment provided for the mine workers, another major factor in the lethality of silicosis in India is misdiagnosis by local doctors, who often confuse silicosis for tuberculosis due to similar-looking X-ray results.
Proper diagnosis of silicosis relies on knowledge of patients’ occupational exposure history, something most Indian doctors tend to ignore, said former director of the National Institute of Occupational Health, Dr Habibullah Saiyed. Thus many doctors prescribe antibiotics for tuberculosis to patients suffering from silicosis, when they should be advising those patients to immediately stop working at the mines and prescribing medicines for silicosis symptoms. When silicosis exposure is diagnosed early enough, it can prevent much suffering and death.
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