Whitesburg KY

Black lung’s comeback

Everyone understands what causes black lung and how to prevent it by controlling dust in mines.

Coal operators have an incentive to prevent the debilitating and deadly illness because the industry must fund benefits for its victims.

Yet black lung is roaring back.

What gives?

The Obama administration’s mine safety and health chief, Joe Main, has put that question at the top of his agenda. He promises an intensive initiative to end black lung once and for all.

If that sounds like something you’ve heard before, it’s because you have. The Clinton administration introduced a program to end black lung in 15 years.

The Bush administration had other priorities, however. Elaine Chao’s Labor Department once supported a plan that would have quadrupled the amount of dust allowed in mines.

Black lung, a term that encompasses several respiratory diseases, had been in retreat for 20 years, declining 90 percent from the early 1970s among long-term miners.

But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that in a “dismaying trend,” black lung rates began to increase in the late 1990s. The incidence among miners with more than 20 years of experience doubled between then and 2005-06, according to NIOSH’s surveillance program.

More than 10,000 miners died of black lung between 1995 and 2005.

No one’s really sure why black lung has made a comeback. One theory is that the thin coal seams left in Appalachia require drilling and blasting through more rock, exposing miners to silicia as well as coal dust. The longer shifts now worked by miners might be a factor.

A long-standing obstacle to combatting black lung is that the measures of dust exposure in mines are unreliable.

There have been scandalous cases of fraud and manipulation of air sampling to conceal dust-limit violations.

But even when coal companies follow the rules on air sampling, the results provide a less than accurate picture of how much dust miners are inhaling on the job.

NIOSH has developed a lightweight personal dust monitoring device that miners could wear and that’s considered tamper proof. This technology could go a long way to providing a more accurate measure of dust exposure. And more accurate measures would help the Mine Safety and Health Administration develop more realistic regulations.

Main, who’s espousing a multi-pronged approach to improving air quality in mines, brought his End Black Lung campaign to Frankfort last week in one of a series of regional meetings.

He calls the initiative overdue. About that, he couldn’t be more correct.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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