"We are waiting for the findings of the tests but the patients need treatment as soon as possible," said Wang Jiancai, director of the Wuwei Disease Prevention and Control Center.
Reports of black lung among farmers highlights gaps in the government's supervision to ensure healthy working conditions, said Zhai Yujuan, a law professor at Shenzhen University in Guangdong province.
The separation of responsibility between labor and health bureaus at county level and below makes it almost impossible to properly monitor the safety of some workplaces, particularly mines, he said. "Labor bureaus are responsible for work safety, while occupational health is supervised by health bureaus. This division has reduced efficiency in protecting workers' rights."
The owners of the gold mines do not provide protective masks to prevent workers from inhaling the thick dust, said former staff. Shang Zhihu, 41, who lives in Miaotai estimated about 80 percent of farmers from his village worked without protection while drilling ore in Subei.
Han Guofu was one of the few exceptions. The 47-year-old said he and five other workers bought special facemasks before going to work underground. However, the gear did not prevent Han from also developing black lung.
There are three major mines producing 750 kg of gold every year in Subei, as well as more than 15 smaller operations dotted around the county.
Most mine owners were not available for comment when contacted by China Daily. However, Xie Changjun, who runs a gold mine in the county's Mazongshan township, said he did not make a profit before 2007 and could not afford to buy his 200 workers protective masks, which cost about 8 yuan each.
"To be honest, I didn't realize there were such terrible risks to underground drilling. Also, workers don't wear masks because they don't think they are convenient," he said.
Shang Huazi bursts into tears while talking about her husband Zhang Yuesheng, who died from black lung. The couple's son, Zhang Long, said he is determined not to follow his father into the mines.[China Daily/Photos by Feng Yongbin]
Under the Law on Pneumoconiosis Prevention and Control introduced in 1987, governments at county level and above are responsible for preventing black lung and for punishing mines that do not protect workers. This means officials in Gulang have no authority over facilities in Subei and can only help affected families get compensation.
The Gulang government was sent a report on black lung from Heisongyi township last April and its labor bureau contacted Subei in late August. As of Jan 24, Subei still had not responded, according to Gulang officials. No one with the Subei government was available for comment when contacted by China Daily.
"The lack of communication between departments makes it harder for villagers to assert their rights and claim compensation," said Lu Huilin, a sociology professor at Peking University.
Farmers are further hampered by the fact they did not sign contracts with the mine owners. Few villagers in the impoverished area receive higher education, while most women are illiterate, so their knowledge of employment law is extremely limited.
"Farmers were only hired as temporary labor at the mines because we had to be back in our village for harvest in the autumn," explained Li Tingde, 46, who worked as a driller in Subei for three years in his 30s. "Everything was done through verbal contracts."
Gulang officials said they are collecting evidence of employment relations.
"Maybe farmers don't have the awareness to sign a contract with employers, but the fundamental problem is the lax supervision of mines by local governments," argued Professor Lu.
Health and labor bureaus are required to carry out regular inspections on companies under the Law on Occupational Disease. Any employers found failing to provide staff with necessary protective gear face warnings, fines and even closure in extreme cases.
Lu said these checks should be more comprehensive and called for harsher penalties for offenders.
"The labor contract law has not been fully implemented across the country. Many enterprises are reluctant to give a contract but labor bureaus should force them to," he said. "The government should not expect all workers to understand the need to sign contracts because educational backgrounds vary widely."
He praised Gulang officials for responding correctly but urged the authority to improve its efficiency.
"This disease cannot be cured, so the compensation is vital to help families deal with losing their main breadwinner," he added.
Families of the seven Gulang men killed by black lung continue to suffer financial and mental anguish, said Shang Huazi, whose husband Zhang Yuesheng died on Oct 27, 2006, after working in a Subei gold mine for 13 years.
Zhang went for a medical test several months before his death as he could no longer bear the wheezing and coughing brought on by his condition. "My family was just able to pay for the test, which was 6,000 yuan. To pay for his surgery we borrowed money from relatives," said 42-year-old Shang.
But Zhang's lungs were too badly damaged. After his death, his family had to repay more than 70,000 yuan they borrowed to cover hospital bills - 20 times more than Shang's annual income.
"If I had no children, I would have had no courage to live on," sobbed Shang, who earns 30 yuan a day as a cleaner. "We have been given little help by the local government."
Black lung sufferers receive a minimum of 55 yuan in social insurance a month from the Gulang government, but families of dead patients do not qualify for aid. Local officials said they are doing all they can to help ease the financial pressure. Professor Lu suggested authorities cover patients' treatments with social security funds in advance, which can be repaid later by families.
Chen Liping said she would spend all the money she had helping her father Chen Dejin, 50, who was diagnosed four years ago and is now bed-ridden at home in Yikeshu village.
"My brother and I only have one father. As long as he can be cured, we don't care how much money his treatment costs," said the 22-year-old, who quit her job to care for her father. "He says he is just waiting for death but we'll do all we can to save his life."
Before returning to Gansu, Chen Liping earned 900 yuan a month in a Beijing garment factory. She has already spent almost 3,000 yuan of her savings on a respirator to help her father breathe.
Zhang Long, 15-year-old son of Zhang Yuesheng, said he understands the financial burden his mother shoulders and tries his best to comfort her with excellent exam scores.
"I will study hard so I never have to follow the same road as my father," said the teenager, who walks 8 km from school to his village every weekend to save on bus fare.
Shang knows keeping Zhang away from the mines when he is older may be hard, though. "I'm afraid I will not be able to afford to send him to college, even if he gets accepted at a prestigious university," she said.