The road from Johannesburg to Phumula in the East Rand is bordered by mine dumps – their terraced, blond-gold soil towering above highways and hostels.
Philile Mahlangu lives in Phumula just 52 kilometres east of Johannesburg – the City of Gold – yet not even she can name the silent killer estimated to take the lives of about four percent of gold miners each year, Attorney Richard Spoor was recently quoted as saying in the Daily Maverick.
Age-old killer continues to stalk the mines
Previously known as “miner’s phthisis”, silicosis is a lung disease arising from exposure to silica dust during mining that can appear decades after people are exposed to the dust. About a quarter of long-serving miners are estimated to have the condition, which can make them more vulnerable to tuberculosis, according to statistics cited by the LRC.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is now trying to increase awareness in Gauteng’s townships about silicosis to people like Philile Mahlangu, hoping that the information will filter back to those working on or connected to the country’s gold mines.
According to TAC’s Tshweu Mosedi, many people do not understand how the condition develops – or how to prevent it among family members who may be mine workers.
The American Lung Association has recommended these tips to help prevent silicosis among miners and construction workers who may be exposed to silica:
- Use a water hose to wet dust before it becomes airborne;
- Your employer must give you a properly fitted respirator that is specifically designed to protect you from silica dust where water sprays and ventilation may not be able to reduce dust levels. If you wear a respirator, avoid having a beard or mustache that could interfere with the respirator’s fit; and
- If possible, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving the worksite. This will prevent you from bringing silica into other work areas, your car and your home—and exposing your family and other people to silica.
The Department of Labour has established the National Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis, which aims to eliminate the condition by 2030 in line with international targets.