Chest 117; Silicosis

7 Nov
Chest 117 MPF 2C

Chest 117; Silicosis

After a good friend married to a mining engineer asked me to consider make a picture relating to mining diseases, I chose an X-ray of a person with severe emphysema and Progressive Massive Fibrosis of the lung due to silicosis. The name silica comes from the Latin word silex – a flint.

My upbringing from the late 1940s through to the 1970s was in a small copper-mining town, part of a series of mines known as the Copperbelt in Zambia. Almost the entire population was dependent one way or another on Copper Mine for a living, as was my father who worked underground. Underground workers spent their days breathing silica dust released during blasting. The Miners Phthisis Board figured prominently in all our lives and had the power to dictate the difference between being allowed to work or not.

Miner’s phthisis (or Potter’s Rot) is a debilitating occupational disease due to deposition of fine grains of crystalline silica dust in the lung, and the body’s immunological reaction to it. It causes fibrous scarring of the lung that restricts the ability of the tissue to absorb oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide. It leads to emphysema with chronic shortness of breath, cough, and cyanosis (blueness of the skin). Sometimes the immune response is overwhelming and causes large lumps of fibrous tissue known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF) to form. It predisposes to infections, especially TB, and the tissue can break down causing lung cavities.

A major concern in mining and other industries, silicosis has caused such devastation that it is an important economic issue which governments cannot ignore, therefore focus was very much on the financial interests of mining. Other risks of silica were not appreciated till relatively recently. Since the 1990s there’s been re-evaluation of its role in triggering auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and sarcoidosis.

The ubiquity of silicosis throughout the world has given rise to an entire culture, particularly within coal-mining communities. Many ballads, poems, and works of art relate to this disease. The paradox is that the men must work to live, whilst knowing they work to die.

The opening stanza of Gabriel Gadfly’s Poem Briar Patch gives a taste of this;

Press your ear close.

Sometimes you can hear the breath
rattling in my chest like a bone shrugged
its moorings and ought to be tied back down…..

A 1940s lino-print The Cough by Noel Counihan 1947 is particularly moving and reminds me of heart-wrenching encounters with men, struggling for breath, dying of emphysema due to dust inhalation, smoking, and recurrent infections, whilst I was working in a chest hospital in a coal mining area of England.

The cough

The Cough, Noel Coulihan 1947

My picture, based around a severe case of PMF with collapse, fibrosis, and cavitation in the upper zones of the lung, includes photos of a mining rock-face and a shaft headgear such as those that were central to our life in Zambia, and which will be familiar to many mining communities. On the right side of the image a faintly perceived ghost-like figure can be seen.

12 Responses to “Chest 117; Silicosis”

  1. Playamart - Zeebra Designs November 7, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    hi tony ! wow, three in a row – lucky me! this one is especially interesting b/c of pulmonary issues and my own history of chronic cough and then a dozen years cough free and then the diagnosis of emphysema.. most times i feel fine and question the diagnosis, but every so often that wheeze/rattle whispers from below, ‘be careful… i’m lurking down here..’ the poem tells me that my minor wheeze /rattle is nothing compared to to what those dear people endured…

    • Xraypics November 7, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

      Lisa, So good to hear from you again. My art has been quiescent for a while; focusing on making puppets and performing at festivals. We have also had a series of wonderful visitors to stay, but that takes up valuable time too. You have mentioned emphysema before. I can only sympathise. If you can keep infections at bay, and living in the area you do will help. In the UK I treated many people with dreadful, severe emphysema as a result of a lifetime smoking, industrial exposure, and general pollution. It was heart wrenching to watch them in their last years, and days. The pain, though was mostly mine, they were blessedly unaware due to carbon dioxide narcosis.

  2. sedge808 November 7, 2016 at 11:28 am #

    x-ray art

  3. leecleland November 7, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    A beautiful image for such a devastating problem. Thanks for giving the heads up on the ghostly figure I may have missed it otherwise and it does add to the whole story.

  4. Photobooth Journal November 7, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

    Silicosis was a big part of my education when I studied to be a ceramicist in the early 1980s. This was a great post Tony but for some reason I can see everything apart from your art work. Must be a glitch with the iPad, I guess, though it has never happened before. 😞

    • Xraypics November 7, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

      Sorry you couldn’t see the picture. I hope you can pick it up some other way. Potter’s lung! My main exposure to silicosis was through mining, but I’ve heard of the condition in the midlands of the UK where there were huge potteries.

      • Photobooth Journal November 9, 2016 at 9:33 am #

        Definitely a disease in big potteries and small. Anyone today who works full time with clay, who doesn’t wear dust masks, is risking the condition.

  5. Teri Malo November 27, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Thank you for posting such a moving essay and the art you made from it. Emphysema is so ubiquitous, and so terrible. I doubt there’s a family that hasn’t been affected.

  6. elmediat December 4, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Excellent visual composition. Fascinating post . 🙂

    The poet’s website does not seem to be active anymore ( the ever changing internet), should have gone with WordPress.
    I found the poem here – .

    While delving into the Asymtote online journal, found a photograph by Guillaume Gilbert that I though you might find interesting. It was used as an illustration to accompany article:

    Found the photographer’s website, but the photograph seems to only accompany the article.

  7. walterwsmith3rd December 12, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    This is a fascinating piece of art and study.

    • Xraypics December 12, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

      Thankyou, I did enjoy making it, and i appreciate your comment.

  8. Mary P March 26, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

    . Fascinating post .

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