MORE than 23,000 students at about 60 Hunter schools within 500 metres of the region's coal railway spend their lunchtimes breathing air filled with coal dust from passing trains.
Many also spend their days in classrooms without airconditioners or air filters to protect them from damaging particulates in the dust.
Singleton GP Dr Tuan Au has been investigating a link between open-cut mining operations and rising respiratory illness in his community and has thrown his support behind a campaign to put covers on the trains.
The Maitland-Newcastle Diocese Catholic Schools Office said two primary schools, St James in Muswellbrook and St Joseph's Denman, had dust-monitoring devices. Precautions were also taken at St Catherine's Catholic College in Singleton, where staff brought students indoors when it was windy or dusty.
''The Catholic Schools Office and its schools follow the advice of Hunter New England Health, however [they] are open to all initiatives that lead to cleaner air,'' an office spokeswoman said.
A NSW Education Department spokesman said it had not been approached by any school raising coal dust as a health issue.
''The department and schools would co-operate with the health or environmental authorities if they saw schools as having a role to play,'' he said. ''Any parents with concerns are advised to seek medical advice.''
The chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, Stephen Galilee, said it was important to monitor air quality and establish the facts.
''We're keeping a close eye on the progress of this work so we can develop the right response and implement better methods of dust suppression,'' he said.
Dr Au said the longer children were exposed to pollution, the more lung damage was caused.