2018-02-07 / Health

Black lung problem worsens

“Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they’ve identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, a cluster that was first uncovered by NPR 14 months ago,” Howard Berkes and Adelina Lancianese report for NPR, saying it reflects “a kind of mining disaster in slow motion” in the Central Appalachian coalfield.

“In a ‘research letter’ published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, NIOSH confirms 416 cases of progressive massive fibrosis, or complicated black lung, in three clinics in southwestern Virginia from 2013 to 2017.”

The clinics also treat miners from Kentucky and West Virginia, for a disease that gradually takes away the ability to breathe. “Lung transplants are the only cure, and they’re possible only when miners are healthy enough to qualify,” NPR reports.

“We’ve gone from having nearly eradicated PMF in the mid-1990s to the highest concentration of cases that anyone has ever seen,” Scott Laney, a NIOSH epidemiologist on the study, told NPR, which says it has found “that the likely cause of the epidemic is longer work shifts for miners and the mining of thinner coal seams. Massive mining machines must cut rock with coal and the resulting dust contains silica, which is far more toxic than coal dust.”

Another reason, NPR reports, is “layoffs and retirements brought on by the decline in coal mining. Miners who put off getting checked for black lung earlier began streaming into clinics, especially if they needed the medical and wage replacement benefits provided by black-lung compensation programs.”

Norton, Virginia lawyer Joe Wolfe said the federal government needs to declare a public-health emergency for the 50,000 miners still working.

“New federal regulations that are supposed to limit exposure to dangerous levels of coal and silica dust were fully implemented in 2016, a few months before NPR first reported the PMF epidemic,” Berkes and Lancianese report. “The Trump administration recently announced a ‘retrospective study’ of the new regulations, which has mine safety advocates concerned, especially given the epidemic of the disease caused by mine dust.”

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