Black lung disease increasing in youth

From the new September-October 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Black lung disease increasing in youth

Detroit, Mich.–An alarming increase in black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) among coal miners is raising serious questions about the effectiveness of coal dust suppression in the nation’s mines. Since the 1980s, cases of the disease have quadrupled in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. Whereas before it had primarily affected older miners, studies by the Center for Public Integrity, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and National Public Radio reveal that there has also been a spike in the disease among younger miners as well–some in their 20s.

This comes as no surprise to federal mine safety regulators or the mining industry. They have known for at least two decades that miners were breathing dangerous amounts of coal dust. Regulations to control coal dust are very weak and coal operators tamper with coal dust detectors in the mines to register false lower results that they then report. Compounding this fraudulent reporting is that there are far too few federal mine safety inspectors to effectively monitor the thousands of coal mines in the country.

The importance of coal dust control had been horribly demonstrated in the 2010 coal dust explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners. Autopsies of the dead miners disclosed that of the 24 tested, 17 had evidence of black lung.

The extent of the increase in black lung is vividly described by a coordinator of a West Virginia health clinic, working there since l989, who said that in her first ten years, she had four cases of serious black lung and now she has 50.

In addition to huge amounts of coal dust produced in the mining process, there is also more toxic silicia dust released. Federal mine records of 113,000 samples of dust taken since 1987 reveal that 52% exceeded federal coal dust standards and about 65% exceeded silica standards. Technological advances in coal production increase the release of coal and silica dust, making those standards woefully obsolete and in serious need of reform to reflect current mining dangers.

My closest friend when I worked in the mines in the l950s was a young Black man about 6’4″, weighing about 200 pounds and with muscles like steel. He got black lung while in his 40s and his health quickly deteriorated. My monthly visits to see him as he lay in bed became increasingly agonizing. I saw his once superb body decimated by the disease. He kept a big empty coffee can by his bedside and incessantly coughed up black slime that he spit into the can. He became nothing but skin and bones, and the oxygen he had to breathe provided little relief for the excruciating pain he suffered with every breath he took. At the end, he welcomed death.

–Andy Phillips

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