Chilean Miners Didn't Face Many of the Risks the Media Said They Did

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The story of the Chilean miners and their subsequent rescue after more than two months trapped in the mine, brought about a flurry of media coverage. The rescue efforts generated extensive news coverage. There were thousands of stories and many of them, including several by ABC News, focused on the miners' health.

Medical experts have pointed out that many of those stories contained "myths" about the health risks the miners faced. Experts attribute many of the inaccuracies to incomplete information.

"There has been lots of speculation on different things," said Dr. James Polk, deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine at NASA. "A lot of it comes from not having all the facts, and things that people didn't know about the situation." Polk was part of the NASA team that advised Chilean officials on the rescue process.

Here, we touch on a few of these health myths and with the help of medical experts, set the record straight.

The Miners Were at Risk for "the Bends"

A number of media outlets reported that the miners faced the possibility of decompression sickness, also known as "the bends," as they emerged from the mine. Decompression sickness is caused when people breathe in air that's a different pressure than the water. Deep sea divers often get "the bends."

"What most people didn't know is that the workers were at sea level," said Polk. "The entrance to the mine was above sea level. People thought the miners were [almost 2,300] feet below sea level."

"They were not underwater," said Dr. Corey Slovis, professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "They were not down very deep, and they'd have to be many miles underground for there to be a pressure change."

While experts say there was no risk of decompression sickness for the Chilean miners, men trapped in at least one previous mine collapse did face the very real possibility of "the bends." Dr. Richard Kunkle, an emergency medicine physician who helped with the rescue effort after the 2002 collapse of the Quecreek Mine in Somerset, Penn., said one of the nine men trapped in that mine did develop decompression sickness after they were all rescued.

"The difference between [the Chilean mine] and where we were at Quecreek is that the [Quecreek] mines were flooded and trapped the air, and the air was pressurized," said Kunkle.

The Miners Were Confined in a Small Space and Unable to Move

Some media reports said that being in a confined space could limit the miner's mobility and cause them to develop blood clots. Doctors say while that does happen, it was not the case in the Chilean accident.

"The miners were getting a fair amount of exercise," said Polk. "They had a lot of labor to do -- they were moving rocks, setting off small charges to make sure the escape pod had enough room and were able to exercise."

One of the miners reportedly ran several miles every day.

Polk also said because the miners were not idle, there was very little risk of blood clots, heart attacks or other serious medical problems that could be brought on by limited movement.

Polk also stressed that Chilean medical officials had the same equipment and supplies at the mine site that there would be in any emergency room, so they were prepared to handle any emergency.

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