Breathless and Burdened

Published — September 15, 2014 Updated — September 17, 2014 at 11:36 am ET

Black lung disease surges to highs not seen since the ’70s, research shows


A longwall mining machine operator watches as the massive device cuts through a coal seam in a mine near Cameron, W.Va. (Dale Sparks/AP)

Black lung, the dreaded coal miners’ disease that had been on the decline, has roared back. The worst form of the illness now afflicts a higher proportion of miners than at any time since the 1970s, new research from U.S. government scientists shows.

The likely culprit, researchers say, is a failure by coal mining companies to use readily available tools to control the dust that lodges in miners’ lungs and causes the disease.

Each case of advanced black lung “is a tragedy, and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” the researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a letter published Monday in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association said the trade group had not yet had the opportunity to review the findings in detail, but told BuzzFeed News that “our industry continues its efforts to control coal dust to improve miners’ health.”

Back in 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act limited the amount of dust allowed in mines with the expectation that the disease would be virtually eradicated. This appeared to be happening: Prevalence declined until the late 1990s, when only 0.33 percent of working miners had the severe form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

Then, to researchers’ dismay, this trend reversed. The numbers released Monday place the rate in 2012 at 3.23 percent, almost a ten-fold increase. But even this number is almost certainly an undercount, as researchers previously have noted when describing data derived from the government’s surveillance program. Participation is voluntary and does not include miners who have retired or had to quit because of disability — workers likely to bear the largest disease burden.

While mining companies can curb black lung using widely available equipment and long-known practices to limit dust levels, researchers say, there may be other contributing factors. Miners are working longer hours, and the mixture of dust they’re breathing may be particularly dangerous.

The uptick in severe disease has hit especially hard in a triangular region encompassing southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia. In these areas, thick deposits of coal largely have been mined out, and companies increasingly are cutting into rock containing minerals that are toxic to the lungs, researchers and industry experts say.

Miners and their advocates also point to gaming of the dust sampling system required by law. Miners often describe being directed to falsify the dust samples, and federal rules left loopholes that could be exploited to misrepresent how much dust workers actually were breathing.

Miners are supposed to wear pumps that collect the dust in the air around them, but, when sampling was taking place, companies could cut production significantly — generating far less dust. They also could sample for only eight hours, even if a miner worked 10 or more, and average samples among multiple miners, potentially masking dangerous overexposures to individuals.

On August 1, parts of a long-awaited rule from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration took effect, and regulators say it should close these loopholes. The rule also lowers the amount of dust allowed and expands the NIOSH surveillance program to include above-ground miners and expanded testing for all mine workers.

Chris Hamby, a former Center for Public Integrity reporter, now works for BuzzFeed.

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