The Canary, the Miner’s Alarm

Sentimental coal-miners carried canary resuscitators to revive ...

It’s common for environmentalists to refer to something as the “Miner’s Canary.” It’s obvious from the context that it refers to something important, but many people do not know the real story.

Caged canaries were taken down into the mines, and if the birds showed signs of distress, the miners headed for safety. Bird lungs are much more sensitive than human lung. There are some dangerous but odorless gases in mine shafts (such as carbon monoxide) that historically have silently killed large numbers of miners. If the canary started having breathing distress, it meant that some poisonous gas had reached dangerous levels.

The idea that canaries could be used to monitor lethal gases in mines came from a Scottish physiologist, John Haldane (1860-1936). Canaries started to be used in British mines in 1911, and were also used in Canada and the United States.

Canaries continued to be used in mines until the development of mechanical sensors around 1986. But why canaries? The birds were very common and inexpensive. Furthermore they were very common pets, so many miners would have been familiar with how to care for them. Canaries in the mines saved miners’ lives. Unfortunately, it killed the canaries.

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