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Black lung disease strikes hundreds in NW China gold mines

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 Wednesday.

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

These included 252 cases from Heisongyi town, where six had died. "Twelve cases, including one death, were reported in Huangyangchuan town and another 11 people were diagnosed in Shibalibu Village," said Cui.

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 town in April, and began a medical survey," said Cui.

The result, however, 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 (8,824 U.S. dollars) to cover his medical bills," said Ji.

Chen's workmate and neighbor Yang Zifa died early last year at the age of 36, leaving behind 70,000 yuan debts. 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, who was 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."

Gulang County, locked in the remote mountains, is one of the poorest counties in China.

In Heisongyi town, the net per capita annual income was only 1,500 yuan last year, according to Li Cunguo, secretary of the Heisongyi Town Committee of the Communist Party of China.

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 labor contract, it was difficult to claim compensation or refund of medical costs, said Xu Shucai, an official in charge of labor and social security with Gulang county government. "We will work with the local government in Jiuquan to find a solution."

Meanwhile, he said the county government had promised an annual allowance of 718 yuan for each patient.

One miner owner has denied the work caused the illness and he blamed tobacco.

"Mining cannot cause black lung disease," said Pan Zhanlin, a business tycoon who owns the Deyi Mining Co. in Jiuquan, where some of the patients had worked. "They had lung problems because they smoked too much."

Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is a chronic occupational disease by the prolonged breathing of mine dust. There is no specific treatment for the ailment, according to Chinese Medical Association.

In a related development, 59 migrant workers diagnosed with black lung disease or suspected with the illness in Shenzhen, southern China's Guangdong province, will each receive 1,000 yuan Thursday from the local government for the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, according to the municipal bureau of civil affairs.

On Friday, the bureau will dispatch two buses to carry them back to their hometown in Sangzhi County of Zhangjiajie, central China's Hunan province.

Compensation and medical treatment would be arranged for them after the Lantern Festival which falls on Feb. 28 this year, sources with the bureau said.

More than 40 other migrant workers from Zhangjiajie, who also suspected that they developed black lung disease as they did the same demolition and rock drilling work as the above 59 workers, are waiting for diagnosis results.

The 100-plus workers are the second batch of migrant workers who claimed, in group, compensation from Shenzhen government for the occupational disease.

Last May, a group of migrant workers from Leiyang, Hunan province, each received 70,000-130,000 yuan in compensation from the city government for the illness.