OBJECTIVES--This two part study aimed to determine whether there was an excess mortality generally or for some diseases among middle aged white South African gold miners on the Witwatersrand and whether the underground dust exposure of these miners contributed to the development of lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or ischaemic heart disease (IHD). METHODS--A cohort of 4925 white miners in South Africa, born between 1 January 1916 and 31 December 1930 who were alive and working in the vicinity of Johannesburg on 1 January 1970, then aged between 39 and 54, was followed up for 20 years by which time 2032 had died. Most were gold miners (about 87% had worked 85% or more of their shifts in gold mines). Standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) were calculated as percentages of the number of deaths observed in the cohort for a condition as stated on the death certificate divided by the number expected on the basis of concurrent mortality in the reference population (the total age specific white male population of South Africa). A case-control analysis was performed for three diseases (lung cancer, COPD, and IHD), the results of which are presented for those miners in the cohort who had spent at least 85% of their service on gold mines and had worked at least 15% of their shifts underground. RESULTS--The SMR for all causes of death was 129.6%, raised because of excess mortality due to the following causes: lung cancer (SMR = 139.8%), IHD (124.1%), COPD (189%) and cirrhosis of the liver (155.3%). Smoking was confirmed to be the main risk factor for lung cancer and COPD although cumulative dust exposure was found to increase the risk of COPD in conjunction with smoking. No significant risk of lung cancer resulted from exposure to dust. High blood pressure and smoking were found to increase the risk of IHD, but no association between IHD and the quetelet index (weight/height2) was found. CONCLUSIONS--The most significant and unexpected finding was the 30% increase in the SMR for all causes. Very little of this increase could be attributed to mining and the main factor for this was probably the adoption of an unhealthy lifestyle by these men (compared with other South African white men) particularly smoking (86% were smokers) and alcohol consumption.
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