October 11th, 2010
02:13 PM ET

Ascent could bring health risks to miners

Work to rescue 33 miners from a copper mine 2,200 feet below Chile's Atacama Desert is about to take a dramatic turn.

The first miners could be pulled from the mine as early as Tuesday evening.  Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich says they are in good spirits and, overall, in very good health. However, some of the men have shown signs of anxiety and some have had minor cardiac issues, Manalich added.

The miners will be switched over to a liquid diet six hours before they begin their trip to the surface in case they vomit on the way up. The rescue capsule will spin as it rises to the surface, possibly causing dizziness and even panic.

MIR astronaut Jerry Linenger knows something about isolation and confinement. He says his five months in space left him weak and with bone loss. "Down in the mines you have gravity pulling you down. There will be disorientation–turning your head will feel like doing 100 backflips in a row," he said.

Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne is concerned about the miners being re-introduced to sunlight abruptly. Special sunglasses have been sent in an effort to make sure the miners don't suffer damage to their retinas.

The miners have been monitored very closely since they were first trapped on August 5.  The miners were given special shirts and shorts that pull sweat away from the body due to concern about skin infections.  They're also wearing special socks that help prevent athlete's foot and other fungal infections. They've even had a series of vaccinations including a tetanus booster and flu shot to help boost their immune systems.

The men have been exercising for an hour a day.  One of the miners, Yonni Barrios, is a paramedic and has been weighing his fellow miners daily, taking  blood tests and doing daily urine analysis.  That information is downloaded to a Palm Pilot that has been sending the information back to the surface so that medics and personal trainers can check to make sure the miners are well.  They have been tailoring the miners' exercise routines to the day's figures.

Dr. Bailus Walker, an environmental and occupational medicine expert at Howard University Medical Center, says one concern is the effect the barometric pressure will have on their bodies as they're brought up. "You'll see muscular aches and pains in the joints called 'the bends' as a result of the decompression. You could see some respiratory difficulties called 'the chokes.' You'll see increased blood pressure, and some lung damage–but the adequate supply of oxygen should keep lung problems at a minimum."


The bends, also known as decompression sickness, is a painful condition usually seen in deep sea divers surfacing too quickly. It can also occur when descending from high altitudes. Nitrogen bubbles can form in the blood and tissue when the pressure around someone in the air or water changes rapidly.

James Polk, NASA's deputy chief medical officer, says his agency considered decompression sickness but because the miners were at sea level, found the risk to be very low. "We did the calculations. We found the risk was negligible."

The addition of oxygen in the escape module will also decrease the risk for any nitrogen bubble formation, he said.

Experts say psychological adjustments will be a huge factor. "These men spent 20 days totally cut off in the dark until the first bore hole was made," Linenger said. "So they were in survival mode, which is tough psychologically because you are in a life and death situation."

Once out, the miners will be examined on site and hospitalized for a mandatory two days.  During that time  they'll be monitored and receive physical and mental health care. Doctors will keep an eye out for things like nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and claustrophobia, among other potential issues.

soundoff (298 Responses)
  1. Candid One

    As many have stated, this is article isn't about science; it's cheap hyperbole. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to Mt. San Jacinto in California, rises 5,873 ft or 2,613 m. It was opened in 1963. It's tourist attraction and I doubt that anyone's ever had any concerns aside from temperature (40º F gradient).

    October 12, 2010 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. bollocksboy

    I'm getting the "bends" reading all these bollocks emails!!!
    OOOwwwww! get lives!!

    October 12, 2010 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. bollocksboy

    I'm getting the "bends" reading all these bollocks emails!!!
    OOOwwwww! get lives!!

    October 12, 2010 at 00:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. John Ellis

    Seeing all these people praying for a safe deliverance from the depths of the mine ... and thanking "GOD" for keeping them safe ... I have 1 question.
    If this God could keep the miners safe .... and alive ... why the hell did he let the mine cave in in the first place!!! What kind of a joke is this?

    October 12, 2010 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. giniajim

    The bends won't be a problem, its like taking an elevator up a tall building.

    October 12, 2010 at 01:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Primony

    moot point.. sry it was late lol.

    October 12, 2010 at 05:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. chenpm

    Is bends a serious concern? Has anyone monitored the air pressure at the location that the miners are trapped and is it significantly different than the pressure topside. Because if it is, then they had better have a decompression chamber waiting for these guys at the top. I suspect that the pressure difference is negligible and no worse than that encounter in a low altitude air plane trip (2,000 feet) which is normally done without a pressurized cabin. Or for that matter a trip up to Denver, Colorado.

    October 12, 2010 at 06:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Submariner

    Sure is a lot of bogus info on here. There is no reason to expect them to get the bends if the mine is at atmospheric pressure. Submariners often spent 80++ days submerged at a time and never recieve "adaptation treatement" when they surface. There are no psychological reviews or equipment to help make the transition back into surface life. In fact, the only noticeable effect is the cheap drunk because of the elevated co2 level they lived in. I wish these guys the very best.

    October 12, 2010 at 06:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Algae

      But submarines are not pressurized.

      October 12, 2010 at 23:43 | Report abuse |
  9. Stiff Pieder

    A recent Harvard study proves that masterbation significantly reduces the effects of the bends so these miners should have no problems

    October 12, 2010 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Nudge

    Ba humbug,after 70 days down there I'd be up that hole like rat up a drainpipe.

    October 12, 2010 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Grog

    Caisson's disease was the scourge of bridge and tunnel builders in the 1800's and early 1900's. Divers know it as the Bends. Bunch of geniuses in here aren't there?

    October 12, 2010 at 08:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dr. Seuss

    Who cares about the bends? Mine bends slightly to the left, but my girlfriend hardly notices. The only time I notice the bend is when I pee around corners.

    October 12, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jean Hays

    What effect planetary oxygen depletion from all of these arguments and diversions will have on the miners?

    October 12, 2010 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Dave

    I like pizza.

    October 12, 2010 at 09:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. collen

    Geraldo Rivera should be on the scene shortly.....right after the last miner has been extracted.

    October 12, 2010 at 09:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Deep Sea Diver

    I was a deep sea hard hat diver in the USN, and have done mixed gas diving to 285 feet in the open ocean. I was also a sport skydiver, and have gone from 400ft above sea level to 15000 feet above sea level in about 20 minutes or less on many, many occasions.

    Before I believe that the miners are at risk for decompression sickness, I would want to know the pressure in the mine where they were stuck, and the pressure at the surface. Given reports of the various shafts through which emergency supplies have been sent, and the large bore for the rescue capsule, I am very skeptical of the claim of risk. It appears that the atmospheric pressure inside the mine would differ only minimally from the surface of the entrance. I don't think the miners are even below sea level.

    Other errors in the comments ... the bends, or caisson disease, was figured out long before the Golden Gate Bridge was built. Look for the US Navy Diving manual on line (it is available) and read the history of diving.

    Even if the O2/N2 mix was different down there (which I also doubt), the partial pressure change is not enough to cause DCS.

    I would be fascinated to find out what skyscrapers are pressurized.

    Someone wrote that they had just spent 3 hours at 38000 feet. No, you spent three hours at about 8000 to 9000 feet. The cabin of a passenger plane is pressurized to that altitude.

    It's still going to be a scary ride for the miners. The rescue capsule is small, and it's going to be a bumpy ride. I wish the very best for all of them; the biggest hero will be the guy that waits to be last.

    October 12, 2010 at 10:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Physiologist

    I don't even think these miners are below sea level. If the mine is at 15000 feet, and the mine is only a mile deep, then they are still above sea level by almost 2 miles. If a miner works 10 hours at that depth and then comes to the surface, what is the difference? I can see no mechanism that would result in physical harm or illness caused by their being trapped at that location. The potential harm is the mental stress of fear and the physical risk of the rescue itself.

    October 12, 2010 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Algae

      In other posts I have already noted the unlikely risk of the bends, but the fact that they might be at a level well above sea-level does not mitigate against the bends. Exactly the opposite. The bends is caused by dissolved nitrogen in the bloodstream coming out of solution and forming bubbles. This can happen when the pressure changes from a higher pressure to a lower pressure. Typically for SCUBA diving, we are talking about pressure changes of 15-60 psi. But the reduced pressure of high altitudes (even though it may only be a few PSI) can can also be a contributing factor. That's why most divers are cautioned against flying for 24 hours after SCUBA diving. Either way, assuming the mine is not pressurized (the shafts would need airlocks), the risk of the bends seems ridiculously low.

      October 12, 2010 at 14:22 | Report abuse |
  18. JeramieH

    I'd be more worried about their mental health after the fact... they've gone from being poor miners to being overnight world celebrities, with a ton of attention – they're getting 24/7 health care, a fortified diet and exercise, and the world is watching them. Two months from now, when the world has moved on and they've gone back to being poor miners again, how many will be able to go back to their normal routine again.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Michael Powell, PhD

    I found it interesting to read the many comments. I was pleasantly surprised to find how many persons were aware of caisson disease, and the fact that pressure changes underwater are much larger than changes in altitude. Yes, considerable change in altitude is needed for any form of decompression sickness [DCS]. Unless the mine was pressurized, DCS is not possible. As far as I have read, the mine was not pressurized [to hold back water] and always has been connected to surface pressure.
    My experience in giving interviews for print is always to request a “read back.” It is surprising how different your thoughts can be from those of the writer. Possibly the physician from Howard University discussing DCS is thinking, that is not exactly what I had in mind.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Lynne

    Some of the commentators seem to have a pretty good grasp of scientific facts. But it's hard to filter them out from the rest of the comments.
    What would be great is a discussion byCNN's Dr. Gupta or another expert/professional on the likely medical issues facing the miners as they come to the surface and afterwards. Dr. Gupta?? Paging Dr. Gupta!
    I think the news media are missing the boat here. People want the scientific facts. Reporters are not giving people this.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Robert Pavlis

    As a scientist I am appalled by the things written here. It is a clear demonstration of the lack of understanding that the general public on the very nature of the physical world. Decompression sickness occurs when the ambient pressure is decreased to less than half what it was before in a short period of time so that the nitrogen concentration in the tissues cannot equilibrate with the environmental pressure. The bends would be a concern if the altitude change were 6800 metres instead of 680!!!! I guess our profession has failed in its mission to educate the public.

    October 12, 2010 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Renay98

    It was the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, not the Brooklyn Bridge that had the first diagnosis of "decompression sickness" during it's building.

    October 12, 2010 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Sue

    Why are so many people on these forums so argumentative and contentious? Can't we all just get along and not call one another names? You remind me of third graders and that's probably doing third graders a huge disservice.

    October 12, 2010 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Del Moss

    The reason decompression is not an issue in this case is:
    The entrance to the mine is in the mountains. When the miners reach the bottom of the mine they are at near sea level.
    1 ATA.
    You can not use Navy or any other sport dive tables as water is much heavier than air.

    October 12, 2010 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Eric

    The original mention of the bends is just one example of CNN hyping this event to build interest, and sustain it so they can justify papparazi style harrassment of these men and their families after the rescue. It is a good human interest story as it is, but that's not good enough. CNN and the other tabloid journalists are investing in hype now so they can sell advertisment at higher rates for the follow up reporting later. Talk about your cynical media scumbags

    October 12, 2010 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. JAY

    Dr. Bailus Walker is not a physician.

    October 12, 2010 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Deep Sea Diver

    In the update, some one wrote "The bends, also known as decompression sickness, is a painful condition usually seen in deep sea divers surfacing too quickly. It can also occur when descending from high altitudes. ."

    Really? Yet another CNN science fail. Thousands and thousands of skydivers disprove that incorrect statement.
    You DO NOT get DCS from any kind of descent. In fact, recompression is the treatment of choice for DCS.

    October 12, 2010 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Algae

      I saw that too. Just way too much bad info from this reporter.

      October 12, 2010 at 23:51 | Report abuse |
  28. Guywthclss

    I'm a deep sea hard hat diver and the truth is that they will in fact NOT be at 1 atmosphere. At that depth it will be greater and there is no doubt that they are going to have an unnatural build up of nitrogen in their blood. They will need to decompress and really there should be a professional there calculating that ascent rate. If they yank them up too quickly they will get bent to some degree. The extra O2 will help but will not totally alleviate the problem.

    October 12, 2010 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Tom

    Oh look... the miners are coming up and.... NO BENDS. To those who said they'd get them: I D I OT S .

    October 13, 2010 at 03:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Primony

    As the last miner is pulled out I would like to say one last thing. Told you so!! Morons thinking they would get the bends or go blind. Use your brains to match your talents.

    October 13, 2010 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. ricky

    I like turtles.

    October 14, 2010 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Anonymous Democrat

    Aezel, was it not the science that produced the drill, geologic knowledge, electronics, human biological knowledge, engineering, and materials that were used to get these people stuck 2000 ft underground in the first place???

    October 14, 2010 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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