For decades, miners have converged on the goldfields of central Burma in the hope of striking it rich. Small-scale miners and fossickers drill and pan on the fringes of the open pit and tunnel mining operations of giant natural resource companies.
One such area is in Chaung Gyi, near Pwin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Division. There, in the heart of a country known as the Golden Land, miners who have arrived with the hope of striking it rich are dying.
In Chaung Gyi, physician Dr. Aung Kyaw Oo has been treating miners since 1989. He says that as many as 500 have died from what he diagnoses as Silicosis Pneumacosis. It is a disease known in the big pits of Europe and the United States as Black Lung. Burmese miners are calling it Drillers Disease.
“Locally, it’s called driller’s disease,” he began. “It results from inhaling heavy dust particles while drilling the rock.”
“Workers aren’t taking the necessary health precautions, such as covering their faces as they drill,” he added.
“Instead, they are breathing in sulphates and other chemicals released from the rock.”
The lack of worker protections is part and parcel of an industry that promises so much and often winds up delivering so little. Now, spiraling medical costs are forcing family members to commit to toiling in the mines, despite being aware of the hazards.
Across the village of Chaung Gyi, widows mourn the loss of their husbands. Adding to the misery is the fact that many families are forced to send healthy men and women down into the mine, despite knowing the hazards. Costly medical supplies and frequent trips to the doctor leave little other choice.
One woman in the village tells of losing her son after having to ask him to labour in the mine to keep the family going.
She cradles his orphaned son.
“My 18-year-old died. I only had one child, and I had to take him out of school and send him to work.
“I didn’t want him to die in the hospital. I wanted to take him home but he died right there in Mandalay hospital.”
Dr. Aung Kyaw Oo explained that the disease is often misdiagnosed as Tuberculosis, due to similar x-ray patterns. He says doctors are often prescribing TB drugs to the suffering miners, which worsens their already poor health.
The disease is silicosis pneumoconiosis. However, it tends to show a similar x-ray pattern to TB. Occasionally the patients are prescribed with TB drugs, which can be very damaging.”
“The silicosis patients often struggle to breath, and develop coughs with black sputum or blood.”
The use of mercury and cyanide in the extraction process is exacerbating the situation. Miners inhale noxious by-products as the mineral is loosened from the earth. The deadly chemical pools in the miner’s lungs, as well as in groundwater, poisoning the environment and the workers alike.
Miner Ma Moe’s family has been hard hit by driller’s disease. Three sisters have contracted silicosis, as has one brother. A fifth sibling Ma Moe, is caring for her sick husband.
“We have already lost two of our family,” says Ma Moe’s mother.
“Now, my youngest son-in-law is sick and being treated in Mandalay. But we cannot afford to send Ma Moe’s husband. We have been treating him at home for 5-6 years already.”
Financial woes are forcing Ma Moe to cut corners when caring for her husband.
“Sometimes I have no money to buy syringes. I know these are single-use disposables, but I have to clean them with boiling water and reuse them,” she admits.
“We just can’t afford to buy fresh ones every day.”
At Chaung Gyi, families are resigned to losing loved ones to this debilitating illness. And the ambition that brought them to the gold fields has long since evaporated.
“I have to work hard day and night to feed these children,” says one widow, now working in the mine.