Black Lung Disease

When I began looking at energy issues more than a decade ago, almost 2,000 American coal miners were dying each year from black lung disease and accidents, mostly the former. The majority were old, but a few were younger than 25. Almost 3,000 died from black lung disease in 1972.

The coal dust becomes embedded in the lungs, causing them to harden.

Over the decade from 1993 to 2002, more than 5,000 died in Pennsylvania, 2,300 in West Virginia, more than 1,000 in Virginia, and 900 in Kentucky.

But the rate of death was declining. By 2000, fewer than 1,000 American coal miners were dying each year from this disease. Strip mining was credited, though many miners still work underground.

Now the US rate of black lung disease is rising again.

Though some may view it as a relic of a bygone era, black lung disease is still a serious problem for thousands of miners and former miners nationwide. A study released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that younger miners — in their 30s through 50s — are developing rapidly progressive, debilitating forms of the disease at a much higher rate than expected. This incidence was especially high in smaller mines…

“If you didn’t have dust exposure, you wouldn’t have the disease,” said Vinicius Antao, a medical officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which carries out black lung studies. “There is not enough dust control.”

Recommendations were made but not adopted. Studies are (slowly) being conducted. Is this because dust control studies from Australia are not relevant (see below)? Or because devices are expensive?

(Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety and health for the National Mining Association, a national trade group) said the group does not support lowering the legal dust limit.

Miners’ advocates say that along with stricter limits, better enforcement is needed.

“It’s one thing to have dust control measures in place, it’s another to monitor them,” said Mary Natkin, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., whose students help miners in black lung benefits cases. She said current dust control enforcement, which relies largely on companies’ self-reporting, is like “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”

There’s no doubt that black lung has been drastically reduced since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 established dust limits. Recent surveys indicate about a 3 percent overall rate of disease, compared with 10 percent or more in the 1960s. But with coal production increasing, mostly in smaller, nonunion mines, Robert Cohen, director of the black lung clinic in Chicago, worries about what the future will bring.

“Unfortunately, black lung disease is not likely to disappear. Rather, we’re likely to see more cases if health and safety regulations are weakened or go unenforced,” he said. “Unlike the Sago mine explosion, this will be the hidden disaster. These deaths won’t hit the headlines and will take place quietly decades from now.”

In China, almost 5% (doc) of coal miners have black lung disease. But with recent increases in Chinese coal mining, the rate may rise. I couldn’t find statistics for the Ukraine.

In Australia, (pdf) a rigorous dust monitoring regime is credited with almost eliminating black lung, for a cost much less than dealing with health consequences. They also pay attention to other health issues, such as hearing loss.

3 Responses to “Black Lung Disease”

  1. Rod Adams says:

    Thank you for pointing out this sobering information, especially the fact that there are reasonable, well-known precautions that can be taken to nearly eliminate the disease.

    It is terribly disturbing to think that people are slowly sacrificing themselves for a paycheck in a workplace that could be safer with enforcement of existing rules. This cries for action by either the appropriate government agency, a work force organization, by insurance companies or by company investors that recognize the long term costs.

  2. ana says:

    it is good that people know about this and understand it