Chile Miners' Health Concerns Won't End With Rescue

VIDEO: Dr. Besser on the miners health.
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It has been more than two months of darkness for the 33 miners, trapped more than 2,000 feet below the earth in Chile -- and last night the operations commenced to hoist these miners to safety.

The collapse of the copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert captured the world's attention, along with that of some of the foremost medical organizations in the world.

But while the rescue of the miners is a light at the end of the tunnel in every sense of the phrase, the ordeal may not be over just yet. Doctors are prepared to treat a host of health conditions caused by their entrapment, from skin infections to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Health Hazards 2,000 Feet Below

Medical professionals said the dark, dank environment of the mine is a breeding ground for many physical ailments.

Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said that the poor air quality may cause miners to suffer from pulmonary issues -- including a depressed immune system, partially collapsed lungs from shallow breathing, and asthma due to mold and dust inhalation. And, even with the lack of fresh air, the miners were given the go-ahead to smoke while trapped.

"I would expect respiratory infections in this weakened state," said Schachter.

Doctors said fungal infections like ringworm, athlete's foot and jock itch are also likely -- not dangerous but often very uncomfortable. Treatments are available for the miners once they surface, but it can take months to be fungus-free.

Plus, dental hygiene -- an issue that is not usually a primary concern in traumatic events -- could be a looming issue. The miners were not able to brush their teeth for the first 17 days. Because of this, some developed the gum disease gingivitis. Smoking, diabetes, poor nutrition, and hormonal changes all exacerbate the risk. Many of the miners have been smoking, and one is diabetic. Many of their hormone levels are likely to have changed due to the stresses of being trapped. Fortunately, a good dental cleaning will help treat the gum disease.

A Perilous Journey Into the Light

In order to escape the mine, each miner will take a 15-minute to one-hour ride to the surface in the rescue capsule known as the Phoenix. While the capsule is equipped with oxygen masks, a radio, video camera, and medical instruments, experts said the rescue process itself may be particularly arduous, as they will be squeezed into a cylinder that is only 21 inches wide.

Clinton Cragg, a NASA engineer who worked on the Phoenix's design, said that he and his colleagues were not certain what the atmosphere in the shaft would be like; they prepared the cylinder for rocks and debris that may fall while it is being pulled up.

"In the design process, you try to think of everything you can think of that can go wrong, and you try to put something in the design to mitigate or deal with that," said Cragg. "Apparently they tested the capsule in a shaft, and everything is working properly."

Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters on Sunday that the miners could suffer from dizziness or fainting spells, and said they may even experience anxiety attacks from claustrophobia during the half-mile ride back up to the surface.

Doctors also worried the miners could suffer blood clots and even heart attacks on ascent; they sent aspirin down to the miners to thin their blood prior to the journey.

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