Half-a-Million Miners in South African Silicosis Class Action Suit

South Africa’s High Court gave the go-ahead Friday for as many as half a million miners and ex-miners to file a class action suit against 32 gold mining companies. The miners say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis working in the mines.

A three-judge panel ruled Friday that hundreds of thousands of miners and their families can seek redress from some of the world’s largest gold mining corporations after they contracted painful, often-deadly lung diseases in the mines.

The panel split the case into two classes: those who contracted silicosis and those who contracted tuberculosis.

A group representing the mining firms said in a statement that the companies are studying the ruling and will decide individually whether to lodge an appeal.

The lawsuit, however it proceeds, is likely to have an economic impact.  South Africa’s statistical agency says that mining accounts for more than 8 percent of the nation’s economy.

According to the CDC, in the United States, it is estimated that between one and two million workers have had occupational exposure to crystalline silica dust and 59,000 of these workers will develop silicosis sometime in the course of their lives. From 1991 to 1995, China reported more than 24,000 deaths due to silicosis each year.

However, silicosis in the United States is relatively rare. The incidence of deaths due to silicosis declined by 84% between 1968 and 1999, and only 187 deaths in 1999 had silicosis as the underlying or contributing cause. Additionally, cases of silicosis in Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio are highly correlated to industry and occupation.

Because of work-exposure to silica dust, silicosis is an occupational hazard to mining, sandblasting, quarry, ceramics and foundry workers, as well as grinders, stone cutters, refractory brick workers, tombstone workers, pottery workers, flint knappers and others. Brief or casual exposure to low levels of crystalline silica dust are said to not produce clinically significant lung disease.

Silicosis is seen in horses associated with inhalation of dust from certain cristobalite-containing soils in California.