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HSC fights mining-related lung disease

UNM researchers are helping miners in New Mexico get treatment for different diseases as well as get compensation from their employers.

Researchers are collaborating with Miners’ Colfax Medical Center to screen coal and uranium miners in the state for different diseases and to facilitate their treatment. The researchers are also providing education on how to prevent lung related diseases that are associated with mining.

Akshay Sood, a tenured professor in the Internal Medicine Department and occupational pulmonologist, said that mining was a very important economic activity in New Mexico and continues to be so in some areas of the state.

He said that New Mexico is one of the richest uranium producers in the world, and that it is also rich in coal and many other metal and non-metallic mines.

“Miners who work in these conditions often develop diseases both related to the lungs and outside the lungs,” Sood said.

He said that UNM researchers are following a multi-pronged strategy to improve the lives of former and current miners.

“We provide clinical care including screening, treatment and rehabilitation. We educate communities as well as individual patients, and we also educate people who deal with miners. We also do community engagements. Community based participatory research is also a part of the project. We study these diseases and write research articles,” he said.

He said that UNM has a long standing relationship with Miners’ Colfax Medical Center of New Mexico.

“It stretches back to two decades. Many people have tried to study these diseases and the health of miners. UNM researchers helped miners in both treatment as well as receiving compensation,” he said.

He said that, at some point, around 35,000 people worked in the mines. UNM researchers surveyed 12,000 people between two programs in which UNM participated.

“We recently examined data on 6,500 miners. We found that miners suffer from a variety of diseases like pulmonary fibrosis. We found that among all the miners, coal miners had very high prevalence of lung diseases. We found 29 percent of coal miners had lung diseases, which is a high number,” he said.

The Miners’ Colfax Medical Center of New Mexico has donated money to setup an endowed chair at UNM to continue clinical care, education, community engagement and research in New Mexico, Sood said.

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He said the miners that researchers studied in New Mexico are disproportionately Native American and Hispanic.

“They are poor; they are poorly educated as well. The communities that we are serving are overwhelmingly disadvantaged,” Sood said.

Elizabeth Kocher, program manager for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Radiation Program, said she and her colleagues do medical screenings for uranium miners.

She said the program has been in existence for 14 years, and around 100 to 120 patients are screened annually.

She said that with the addition of the mobile clinic, program officials have been able to increase the medical screening to about 200 patients a year.

“We screen about 1,500 people or more overall. We actually see patients on an annual basis, they have follow-up exams,” she said.

She said that miners are usually screened for occupational lung diseases, which are common in all miners but especially in uranium miners.

“We see diseases like pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer. We identify disease in the patient, and then we do a referral for them,” she said.

The incorporation of mobile clinics has been especially effective in increasing the screening services to more individuals in the rural areas of the state.

“We are able to provide services with the mobile clinics that otherwise we would have never been able to provide,” she said.

Sayyed Shah is the assistant news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @mianfawadshah.

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