Canary and the Coalmine

On December 30th, 1986, a tradition in the coal mining industry would end. Dating back to 1911, miners would use canaries in mines to be able to detect toxic gasses, such as carbon monoxide before they could potentially harm humans. By 1986, the government would formerly declare that a detector called the “electronic nose”, which provided miners with a digital reading, would ultimately replace canaries.

While using a detector was significantly more humane than that of using canaries, miners felt themselves faced with mixed feelings. Canaries had long been so ingrained in mining culture that more often than not these tiny little birds were treated more like pets than like “tools.”

Using canaries for such a purpose is credited to a man named John Scott Haldane, commonly referred to as “the father of oxygen therapy.” Haldane paved the way for research on carbon monoxide which led him to make the ultimate recommendation of using canaries. His thought process was to determine which type of animal would be sensitive to the odorless, colorless, carbon monoxide as well as other types of toxic gases and if such an animal died or became ill it would give the miners a fair warning to evacuate and escape the mine.

Similar to other birds, canaries truly are great early detectors of toxic gases simply because of how vulnerable they are to airborne poisons. Canaries require large quantities of oxygen in order to allow them the capability of achieving flight and flying to high altitudes. Their anatomy of the canary allows them to be able to receive doses of oxygen upon inhalation and, then again upon exhalation via holding in air in the form of extra sacs. In other words, canaries basically have the ability to “double breathe” which allows them to last longer in an area containing toxic gases longer than a human would.

While the use of modern carbon dioxide detectors is a substantially less romantic historical image of the use of a canary, we are able to remember the incredible efforts of these remarkable little birds, and to reflect upon the world of coal mining which is no longer in existence.

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