The most severe form of black lung disease is at levels not seen since the early 1970s, according to new data from the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety.
NIOSH has been testing underground coal miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia for the disease for 40 years. In the data letter published today in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers say there has been a startling resurgence of complicated black lung. This is despite federal laws that were supposed to control dust in coal mines and eradicate the disease.
Evan Smith is an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg.
“What we’ve seen since especially the '80s is that there’s been under-enforcement of the rules, there’s been major loopholes that have meant that even if you look at the book and say ‘this is what the dust level is,’ that’s not what miners have been exposed to,” he said.
Besides the issue of overexposure, the letter’s authors hypothesize that the increased toxicity of what miners are breathing could play a part. Smith said because technology is allowing miners to mine thinner coal seams, they’re breathing things other than coal dust.
“The mix of dust they’re being exposed to isn’t as much as pure coal as what maybe my grandfather would have been breathing,” he said. “Instead there’s a lot more rock, sandstone, shale. And what’s in those rocks ends up being more damaging to miners’ lungs.”
New federal limits on dust exposure in coal mines went into effect earlier this year, with the goal of closing some of the loopholes in the law.