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

Chilean miners faced better health situation than the media said they did.

Oct. 15, 2010— -- 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.

"They made sure they optimized the health of the miners up until the time of the rescue," Polk said. "They contolled COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], hypertension, et cetera."

There have been other miners in similar situations that were not as fortunate.

"At Quecreek, the space was very confined," said Kunkle. While all the miners survived and were rescued, the confinement could have made their situation much worse.

The Miners Would Have a Vitamin D Deficiency

There was also speculation that the miners would suffer from a vitamin D deficiency because they were not exposed to any sunlight. A vitamin D deficiency can cause softening and weakening of the bones.

"Chilean health authorities anticipated this, and they gave them a large dose of vitamin D3 as part of their nutritional supplementation," said Polk. "This was also recommended by NASA."

"There might be some deficiency, but I don't think it will be very dramatic," said Kunkle.

Miners Could Suffer From Low Oxygen Levels in the Body

There were also fears that if oxygen levels were low in the mine, the miners could experience hypoxia, or a low level of oxygen in the body, leading to speculation the trapped men might suffer headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath and nausea.

"There is no medical basis for that conclusion. The atmospheric pressure was the same or imperceptibly different [than at the surface]" said Slovis. "Although the carbon dioxide content in the blood may have risen, they were taking full and complete breaths."

"The mine was extremely well-ventilated at 21 percent oxygen and they had oxygen in the rescue pod on the way up," said Polk.

The situation could have been very different, as it was at Quecreek.

"The [oxygen] concentration was only 17 percent. If we didn't get to them in time, at 17 percent concentration, they would have started to experience shortness of breath," said Kunkle.

"They [the Chileans] were able to get into excellent shape without real nutrition after 16 or 17 days. It's really inspirational," said Slovis.