Health Implications Unknown for Rescued Chilean Miners

Allison Gandey

October 13, 2010

October 13, 2010 — The rescue operation is under way in Chile, and paramedics and physicians are busy monitoring the miners who one by one are being pulled from the ground. Nothing like this has ever been done before, and the health implications are unknown for the 33 men trapped in the mine since August.

The miners were about 2300 feet or 700 meters under ground at the San José copper-gold mine, near Copiapó, Chile. Largely in the dark, their bodies have been exposed to harsh, humid conditions. Healthcare workers predict the heat and humidity altered breathing patterns, prompting shallow breaths. Some of the miners may now have slightly collapsed lungs and could be at increased risk for infection.

Jorge Galleguillos, the eleventh miner rescued from the San Jose mine, is carried away on a stretcher. Hugo Infante/Chilean government, via AP

According to media reports, the men have already received a series of vaccinations, including a tetanus booster and flu shot. Some physicians are predicting more immunizations are likely to help the miners' immune systems.

The humid conditions may also lead to higher rates of skin infections. While still under ground, healthcare workers issued the miners special shirts and shorts to pull sweat away from their bodies to minimize the risk of skin problems. Workers also distributed absorbent socks to help prevent athlete's foot and other fungal infections.

Physicians and paramedics have been working to ensure the miners are stable for the rescue mission. The men have been taking blood tests, doing daily urine analyses, and weighing themselves in the mine. According to healthcare workers, the miners have also been exercising an hour a day.

The rescue capsule is said to be no bigger than a basketball hoop. Miners are confined to the small space for at least 15 minutes as the capsule rides to the surface. It spins as it rises, possibly causing dizziness and even panic. Healthcare workers report the miners switched to a liquid diet before the rescue mission in case of vomiting.

The barometric pressure as the miners are brought to the surface is likely triggering muscle pain. Some miners are expected to experience edema, and most will be vitamin D deficient after all that time without sunlight.

The miners have been fitted with special sunglasses to protect their pupils and oxygen masks for the ride up. The men are expected to be hospitalized for at least 2 days after rescue. Physicians will also be monitoring for the psychological impact of the ordeal and for evidence of anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression.

The men spent the first 17 days totally cutoff in the dark in a life and death situation after the mine collapsed until the first bore hole was made. Nightmares, panic attacks, and claustrophobia could develop in some.

Presidential Statements

President Obama issued a statement Tuesday to the miners. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the brave miners, their families, and the men and women who have been working so hard to rescue them," he said. "While that rescue is far from over and difficult work remains, we pray that by God’s grace, the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon."

Bolivian President Evo Morales attended the rescue mission and met with the only non-Chilean among the miners. "This is a historic event," President Morales said. "We Bolivian authorities are grateful for the effort that Chileans made."

President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera said, "We can all feel proud to be Chilean."

An estimated 1500 journalists are also attending the rescue mission. Many people are glued to television sets and online news feeds watching events unfold. Here at the 26th Congress of the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis, many delegates were talking about the mining accident.

Specialists Respond

Speaking to Medscape Medical News after a news conference, Michel Clanet, MD, from the Hôpital Purpan in Toulouse, France, said he anticipates long-term follow-up and study of the accident and health consequences for the miners.

Dr. Clanet said he is especially concerned about the psychological effects. "These miners would have been incredibly stressed, and they will need psychological support to recover."

Zvonko Mir, MD, from Reha Klinik Walenstadtberg in Germany, said he is also more concerned about the mental than physical health consequences of the accident. "Psychiatric support will be the number 1 concern, in my opinion," he noted during an interview.

Also attending the meeting is health economist Murray Brown, PhD, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dr. Brown says he's amazed by the record-setting survival of the miners trapped since August 5. "They're being resurrected from their tomb."

The men have survived under ground 69 days — the longest in history. The mine owned by Empresa Minera San Esteban had a record of instability that led to previous accidents, including 1 death.

The miners and their families are reportedly making plans to sue. Some men say they plan to return to work after their recovery, and others say they will never set foot in a mine again.

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