Coal dust disease opens historic Queensland wounds

Percy Verrall is dealing with the health effects of a lifetime working in underground coal mines. Photo: Glenn HuntA few weeks ago, 72-year-old retired Ipswich coal miner Percy Verrall had an eight-inch long mass of congealed blood removed from his right lung.

That blood clot was caused by black lung, created when microscopic coal particles trigger a massive choking, emphysema-type infection in a miner’s lungs. Doctors call itpneumoconiosis.

Percy Verrall belongs to the West Moreton coalfields; effectively where coal mining belonged in Queensland in 1848.

Today Percy Verrall is the human face of black lung, a disease which belongs to Dickensian times and has not been seen in Queensland for more than threedecades. That is until this week.

“It’s the really fine black dust you don’t see,” he said.

“And you are sucking it in. See we never had masks or nothing back in them days,” he said.

“I would say I would have worked for almost all – most of my career – without a mask.”

Percy’s dad was a coal miner and his two brothers were coal miners. He is proud of what he did. There is an Australian flag in his front yard at Flinders View.

“I began working down the mines when I was sixteen and a half,” he says quickly, wheezing gently.

Percy worked at most of Ipswich’s biggest coal mines, beginning at the Tivoli underground coal mine, then Rylance collieries at Ipswich, Oakey’s Acland mine, then to Rhondda Collieries, then to the Haenke Mine.

“I did about 30 years underground,” he said.

Percy Verrall then worked for nine years at the Blackwater open-cut mine, “before they pensioned me off” in 1997.

The three specialists consulted about his chest pain asked if he worked with asbestos.

“They said, ‘Have you been working with asbestos?’,” Percy Verrall said.

“I said, ‘No I’m a coal miner. I work underground, in a coal mine’.”

He has spent time in Ipswich General Hospital, Ipswich’s St Andrew’s Private Hospital, the Mater Hospital and the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

“Last year I was in hospital here at St Andrew’s here in Ipswich nine times with a bad infection,” he says.

“Earlier this year my lung just burst and it bled like anything on my right side.”

His wife had heard him “gurgling” and he collapsed as he began a short walk to the toilet.

He then filled five hospital sick bags with blood.

Percy Verrall said when he first worked for Rhonnda Collieries, he was sent “twice a year” for testing.

“We got chest X-rays. But they never told any of the miners what theX-rays were like, whether they were bad or good,” he said.

“But I have found out since that the government kept it quiet and the Mines Department kept it quiet.

“They have all these records in the Mines Department somewhere that they have someone able to read x-rays properly to go through them all.”

Stephen Smyth, from the CMFEU, estimates there are 80,000 to 100,000 “unread” x-rays from coal miners in Queensland Health’s Health Surveillance Unit.

Percy Verrall never heard about his x-ray results.

“Nope,” he said.

Percy Verrall says he met several of his mining mates in hospital and discovered they also had black lung. But it has never been made public.

“There was this one bloke. He was 80-odd, he was in the room with me at St Andrews, with the bad bleeding. The doctor put the camera down inside their lung and he said you’ve got a big lump of blood in there.

“And other pieces of loose blood.

“And the first time I went in there (St Andrews) I was in a room with two other blokes and they worked in the mines and they had bad lungs too.”

“They were on nebulisers all the time.”

Percy Verrall says it is time to establisha black lung fund for coal miners, similar to the Bernie Banton fund for mesothelioma sufferers for asbestos workers.

“Yes. Because this is going to be a thing that just keep going all the time,” he said.

Percy Verrall said if he knew he could contract black lung, he would not have followed his father or brothers in to the mines.

“Definitely not. If I would have known we were going to be like this – a few years after I started – I would have just got out altogether.”

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