Whitesburg KY

Black lung rates double in 10 years

Black lung disease rates among U.S. coal miners have doubled in the last decade, according to new federal government data released last week.

Occupational safety experts say the figures reveal a troubling reversal from a quarter-century of success in fighting the deadly disease.

“I think it’s a very significant concern,” said Dr. Edward L. Petsonk, top black lung researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown.

Earlier last week, Petsonk released NIOSH’s latest black lung study data during the National Coalition of Black Lung Respiratory Disease Clinics meeting in Wheeling, W.Va.

Ten years ago, about 4 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years of experience showed signs of black lung disease.

But new X-ray data from 2005 and 2006 found about 9 percent of miners with 25 or more years working underground showed lung abnormalities that indicate black lung.

Rates among miners with 20 to 24 years of experience also increased, from 2.5 percent to about 6 percent, over the same period, according to NIOSH data.

Since NIOSH began its miners X-ray study program in 1970, black lung rates had consistently declined. A small increase occurred between 1995 and 2000, and the most recent data shows that trend worsening.

“This is very alarming,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a black lung expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical director of the coalition. “We’re very concerned.”

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts issued a news release Sept. 13 to call attention to the new NIOSH findings.

“Black lung is a preventable disease that was supposed to be on the way out after the passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act,” Roberts said. “That act contained a respirable dust standard that all the experts said would be low enough to prevent miners from getting this horrible disease.

“But now what we’re seeing is a trend upward in the prevalence of the disease among miners who began working in the industry after that act was passed,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that either the existing Department of Labor dust standard is not strong enough, or it’s not being strictly enforced. “It’s likely to be the result of a combination of both factors,” Roberts said.

Black lung, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is a debilitating and often fatal lung disease caused by breathing coal dust.

In 1969, Congress placed strict limits on airborne dust and ordered coal operators to take periodic tests inside mines.

The law has reduced black lung among the nation’s coal miners. But, at least partly because of industry cheating on dust samples, the law has fallen far short of its goal of eliminating the disease.

Between 1993 and 2002, nearly 2,300 West Virginia miners died of black lung. West Virginia recorded the highest ageadjusted black lung death rate nationwide during that period, according to NIOSH reports.

In September 2006, a Centers for Disease Control study reported pockets where black lung disease was progressing rapidly, particularly in southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Cohen said that new labor department data also shows a large number of miners who worked only after the passage of the federal coal-dust limit have contracted the most advanced form of black lung, progressive massive fibrosis, or PMF.

“Four hundred and thirtyseven cases of PMF have been found by DOL since 2001,” Cohen said. “Clearly, something is wrong with the control of respirable dust in our nation’s mines.”

In a May 2001 letter to mine operators, Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, said that recent black lung data “are certainly unexpected and indicate that preventative measures to protect the health of working miners have been ineffective.”

The UMW is supporting leg- islation that would tighten the underground mine coal-dust standard from 2 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1 milligram per cubic meter.

“We’ve seen that miners are dying at increased rates on the job in the last two years,” Roberts said. “Now, we’re finding out that many more of them are getting this terrible disease many of their fathers and grandfathers suffered from. Miners need action now.”

Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter specializing in the coal industry for The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, where this report first appeared.

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