Researchers Find Hundreds of Cases of Black Lung in Appalachia

Thanks to regulation, black lung had almost disappeared by the turn of the century. But now it's coming back.

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Black lung has plagued coal miners for more than a century, crippling their lungs and killing thousands. Caused by years coal dust that the body can’t get rid of, black lung eventually starts killing lung tissue when it reaches critical mass. Cases of black lung have declined since 1969, when regulations were passed to minimize the risks that miners faced, but , the disease is making a comeback.

In particular, researchers have , finding over 400 coal miners infected with black lung in southwestern Virginia over the past four years.

Black lung used to be a serious problem for coal miners especially in the early 1900s. In 1969, the U.S. government passed the , which, among other things, implemented stricter safety standards and gave miners the option to transfer out of risky jobs once they started exhibiting symptoms.

Until the turn of the century, this rule kept black lung cases on the decline, with in the late 1990s. But shortly after that, black lung cases started climbing, more than doubling in a few years and doubling again a few years after that. the growing number of cases is due mainly to increased silica dust in mines, which is more harmful than coal dust and produced when drilling into rock to look for thinner coal deposits.

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Left: a normal lung. Center: Simple black lung, often symptomless. Right: Severe black lung.
NIOSH Coal Workers' X-ray Surveillance Program

With a combination of silica dust and coal dust, miners can pick up black lung much faster than with coal dust alone. It used to take a decade or more of exposure to start exhibiting black lung symptoms, but recently miners have reached the end-stage of the disease after only a few years in the industry.

“There’s an unacceptably large number of younger miners who have end-stage disease and the only choice is to get a lung transplant or wait it out and die,” said epidemiologist David J. Blackley .

Researchers have long suspected that black lung cases were much higher than , which relies mainly on self-reporting cases. An estimated that the actual rate of black lung was as much as ten times the official count, and this recently discovered cluster of cases reinforces that finding.

It’s tough to see what can be done to solve this problem. The Obama administration to strengthen safety standards, but it doesn’t seem to have helped much.

Ultimately, what we need is more research on this problem, as well as a shift away from coal products to cleaner, safer forms of energy. In the end, the only thing that may save us from black lung is the extinction of coal itself.

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