“Black lung,” known medically as progressive massive fibrosis or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is a respiratory disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. As the condition worsens, it can lead to shortness of breath, disability and even death.
The federal government has passed several acts intended to protect the rights and health of mine workers, targeting black lung specifically with the Coal Act of 1969. Five years later, the black lung rate among miners in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky reached 3.3 percent – the highest level on record. Rates of black lung diminished over the subsequent decades to 0.4 percent at the end of the twentieth century.
Recently, the disease has made a comeback, once more in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. In 2012, 3.2 percent of coal miners in these states were diagnosed with severe black lung, according to a new report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers who worked on the report analyzed chest x-rays of miners obtained from a long-term, mandated surveillance program that monitors miners’ health. They theorize that the spike in diagnoses could be due to stronger machines that are grinding coal into finer particles, or to a change in the dust’s composition.
“We had a general sense that especially in Central Appalachia we were seeing a comeback, but all of us were very surprised by these latest numbers,” said David Blackley, a researcher who worked on the report.
Diagnoses are likely to increase, say experts, because the fibrosis exhibits a long latency period.
“Frankly, it’s scary as hell, because if that’s what they’re seeing right now you know it’s going to go up,” said Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in West Virginia who has examined 40,000 miners for black lung since 1963.
This news may negatively impact the coal industry, which is currently involved in a legal case against the Obama administration over tighter coal dust regulations that took effect in August.