Workers risk lung disease cutting gems for jewel trade

Mon Mar 16, 2009 4:07am EDT
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By Tan Ee Lyn, Health Correspondent, Asia

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Standing alongside glass cases filled with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other stones on display at an international jewelry fair in Hong Kong, gem buyers discuss what they prize most in precious stones.

"Quality," most reply without a second thought.

They stare blankly when asked if they have ever heard of silicosis and whether they have a policy of refusing to buy stones from factories that don't protect workers from the disease.

"I am sorry, I know nothing about it," said one gemologist at the fair, which drew 30,000 buyers in early March.

Over the border in China's southern Guangdong province, thousands of stonecutters are dying from silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust while drilling, cutting, crushing, grinding or blasting slabs of gemstones.

"Most die in their mid-40s. Some die even younger, just a few years after diagnosis. They also die of TB (tuberculosis) and heart attack," said Shek Pingkwan of Labor Action Asia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 24,000 people die in China each year from the disease which scars the lungs and leads to severe respiratory problems and death.

The number of silicosis cases in southern China grew so high about eight years ago that health experts warned the illness was reaching epidemic proportions.   Continued...