Report: Black Lung Disease Continues to Spread over America’s Coal Miner Territory

New data from a recent National Public Radio (NPR) investigation shows that Appalachian coal miners, more than ever, are suffering from the most severe and deadly form of black lung disease there is. According to the report, the new data on black lung disease, known by medical professionals as “coal worker pneumoconiosis” (CWP), is much higher than what federal regulators had previously reported.

NPR’s investigation, which compiled data from 11 different black lung clinics across east-central Appalachia — Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — yielded data showing cases were 10 times more prevalent than they were thought to be. Ohio alone showed 962 cases between 2010 and 2016.

In the last 3 years, 644 cases of so-called complicated black lung disease were diagnosed at Stone Mountain Health Services with clinics in 3 Virginia communities. That is 6 times the NIOSH national count in nearly half the time.

Some clinics investigated had incomplete records, and still others declined to participate in the investigation. Given this fact, one might assume that cases are even higher than what NPR has reported.

NIOSH Gets Involved, Too

This past Thursday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) stated that 60 current and former miners – from Pike, Floyd, Letcher, and Knott counties in Kentucky – were diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), which is the most severe form of black lung disease. These 60 new cases of PMF were diagnosed over a very short period of time: between January 2015 and August 2016.

All of those whom are afflicted by CWP and PMF have serious trouble trying to breathe. Many of them, in spite of medical help, are dying. PMF, like mesothelioma and several other workplace-related cancers, is incurable and fatal.

“The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said in his interview with NPR. “We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.”

When it comes to the reason for the spike in black lung disease, Laney told NPR that thinner coal seams in Appalachia are probably at the root of the cause. Coal seams in central Appalachia used to be rich and thick with coal, but are now very, very thin. These thin seams that remain still have coal, but that coal is embedded inside other rock. The rock that contains the coal also contains quartz. As veterans of the industry know, cutting quartz and coal together always results in deadly mine dust that includes silica. This lethal combination is especially toxic to a miner’s lung tissue.

All Forms of Deadly Dust and How to Deal with Them

CWP begins with a slight cough and mucus due to continued inhalation of coal dust. As CWP progresses and is complicated by PMF, a deep cough and a shortness of breath develops, along with more mucus and moderate to severe airway obstruction.

Dust is not a new phenomenon to workplaces in the U.S., and mining is not the only hazardous form of work where clouds of different kinds of dust can severely impact the health of its workers and even lead to death. Silica dust – not unlike asbestos – has killed thousands of Americans, and though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has tried implementing limits on exposure levels, cases of silicosis and lung cancer continue to rise.

And then there’s mesothelioma, an asbestos-triggered disease; and yet another pulmonary disease that kills thousands of American workers, including miners, but also firefighters, auto mechanics, custodial workers, U.S. soldiers and veterans, plumbers, shipyard workers, and welders, among others who have been exposed to airborne asbestos fibers.

Mesothelioma develops exclusively through exposure to asbestos, and is a particularly deadly form of cancer, often leaving its victims with a mere handful of months to live.

Examining Ways of Prevention

The only way to prevent CWP, mesothelioma, and other work-related diseases is through controlling the loose dust particles on work sites and having good ventilation in the workplace. As with CWP and FMP, there is no known effective “cure” for mesothelioma.

When it comes to preventing or limiting cases of CWP and FMP in Appalachia, the solution seems to be providing overall safer work environments and adequate training and equipment. This means prioritizing workers’ ability to breathe while in the coal mines, and affording workers the use of safe dust-exposure prevention methods such as wet-cutting and using vacuum dust collection systems.

Mesothelioma, a cancer for which there are around 3,200 new cases each and every year, the solution seems to be even more clear: Banning all forms of the deadly mineral from commerce.  Many Americans wrongly assume that use of asbestos is illegal, but this is not true. Though it is heavily regulated, the U.S. continues to import 1,000 metric tons of asbestos per year, and as a result, people continue to die.

When it comes to occupational hazards, nothing is ever going to get better until we recognize the issue, call on lawmakers to enforce stiffer penalties and regulations, and become more active in voicing our health concerns for our fellow Americans.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: July 21, 2023