Report: Black lung cases ‘unacceptable’

BLACK lung's re-emergence is "unacceptable" and due to Australian coal dust exposure standards not meeting international standards, a new study has found.

A paper to be published in the Medical Journal of Australia today calls for more stringent limits, a comprehensive screening program for at-risk workers and mandatory reporting of cases to a lung disease register.

Black lung, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is caused by chronic inhalation of coal dust.

It is untreatable.

The paper's authors, associate professors Graeme Zosky and Deborah Yates, said black lung diagnoses, after decades with none, were "concerning".

"It is unacceptable that any new cases of CWP should be occurring in Australia in 2016, and our aim should be to eliminate CWP in Australia altogether," the report said.

"As the only cause of CWP is coal dust, prevention is straightforward - preventing exposure to coal dust prevents disease."

The report said coal dust limits varied between states and should be unified.

"The current Australian standards for coal dust exposure limits, which vary between states, are less stringent than international recommendations, and exposure monitoring protocols vary considerably between sites," the report said.

"We strongly urge that the Australian guidelines be reviewed on the basis of current knowledge of CWP, in line with international standards, and that exposure limits and monitoring protocols are nationally standardised according to best-practice guidelines."

The authors called for a comprehensive screening program for at-risk coal workers, including a questionnaire, medical imaging and lung function testing every three years.

They also recommended employers fund the testing but it be performed by doctors, physicians and radiologists not associated with coal companies.

If a worker showed a decline in lung function, the authors said he or she should be referred early to specialist respiratory physicians.

The report also recommends a centralised "occupational lung disease register" with mandatory reporting of black lung.